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September 26, 2002

The RIAA Goes for the Soft Sell

Posted by Mike on September 26, 2002 2:13 PM

Congratulations are probably in order for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). After thrashing around for a few years with the ever-stern and unpleasant Hilary Rosen always at the ready with pitchforks and torches to burn out Napster and its ilk, they've decided to take the fight against "Internet music sharing" to the public with something besides shrill appeals to law: they've enlisted Britney Spears, Luciano Pavarotti, Madonna, and others to appear in full-page ads.

I've had a nasty chuckle over the problems consumer culture's suppliers (like the companies represented by the RIAA) face when the carefully cultivated need to acquire spills over into the anarchy of "music theft."

It's not a question (as the Slashbots will tell you) of an "outmoded business model," which would seem to imply that buggy whip manufacturers should have left all their doors open at night once they weren't as relevant. Their hatred of copyright in general is the byproduct of a deeper cultural gulf between engineers and creative types that plays itself out in the high drama of Nick Parks. If a common geek presumption is that all art can be reduced to algorithm, it follows that the value of music or any other mass-replicable creative expression is next to nothing, with perhaps a few scraps tossed the way of the creator via a tip jar that reduces all artists to street performers.

It isn't even a question of whether copying music is good for the music industry. It might be, which doesn't address the legality of the thing or the question of whether the RIAA's members should be allowed to pursue a self-destructive course if that's where their bliss lies.

It remains a question of laws... and tortured "fair use" claims that seem to include my "fair use" right to rip a CD and burn a few copies for whoever asks in my immediate circle of friends. The RIAA doesn't trust us to treat our ability to reproduce music responsibly, and the law backs up some of their resulting concerns.

Do some people treat their ability to duplicate music in a responsible manner? Sure. I'd guess a lot of people do. I know that I decided to not make a gift of burned copies of the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack , and I can say, with a straight face, that I bought two new CD's in a week based on things I heard on the late, lamented SomaFM. I know others have behaved similarly.

On the other hand, it's hard to forget the guy down the hall in college who had a veritable factory of software he was willing to "share" with others. I once did the math on his collection, assuming an average value of $15 per title, and realized he was sharing tens of thousands of dollars worth of software with anyone who cared to ask. Is it a horrible leap to imagine that there are people with similar inclinations doing the same with a stack of <$1.00 CDR's and a burner?

The RIAA doesn't think so, and they think it might be costing them. Up to now, they've been barking up the wrong tree, attacking the services that facilitate music sharing and presenting a dour "rules are rules" image that will not override the impulse to consume they rely on most of the time. With the new campaign, they've finally figured out how to sell their case: with the stars they keep in the stable.

Hilary Rosen wagging her finger doesn't mean much, but what about the plaintive appeal of Britney, who asks " "Would you go into a CD store and steal a CD?" or PDiddiPuffywhateverheis Combs, who asks music fans to "put yourself in our shoes."

Probably won't do a hell of a lot of good, but it's a step in the right (PR) direction.

This news happens on the same day Peter Gabriel announces that his current album is available over the 'net or on CD. The interesting wrinkle is that the 'net version is available in Microsoft's digital rights management (DRM)-armored format, which will limit its replication/redistribution while allowing owners the ability to burn two copies to CD. It's not clear whether the privilege involves making a normal "pop in yer car CD player" sort of version or a restricted Windows Media Format compilation. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of ways to make a copy of the music, but the speedbumps do add up. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for "a Napster you can pay for."