I learned today (from the EFF press release “RIAA Lawsuit Campaign Losing Credibility”) about the September 2008 EFF report, “RIAA v. The People: Five Years Later.” I wholeheartedly agree with the final sentences of the second introductory paragraph of the report:

…suing music fans has proven to be an ineffective response to unauthorized P2P file-sharing. Downloading from P2P networks is more popular than ever, despite the widespread public awareness of lawsuits. And the lawsuit campaign has not resulted in any royalties to artists. One thing has become clear: suing music fans is no answer to the P2P dilemma.

Many of the lawsuits filed by the RIAA appear to be “grown-up versions” of schoolyard bullying behaviors taken into the courtrooms of our ridiculously litigious U.S. society. This report includes stories which put a touching as well as disturbing “human face” to these discussions over file sharing and lawsuits.

Take, for example, the case of the Tammy Lafky, a 41-year-old sugar mill worker and single mother in Minnesota. Because her teenage daughter downloaded some music—an activity both mother and daughter believed to be legal—Lafky faced over $500,000 in penalties. The RIAA offered to settle for $4,000, but even that sum was well beyond Lafky’s means—she earned just $21,000 per year and received no child support.

Or consider the case of the defendant who faced the $22,500 judgment discussed above, Cecilia Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a mother of five, was hit with the judgment just two weeks after she was laid off from her job as a secretary—a job where she made not much more than that amount in an entire year. Ironically, Gonzalez primarily downloaded songs she already owned on CD—the downloads were meant to help her avoid the labor of manually loading the 250 CDs she owns onto her computer. In fact, the record companies were going after a steady customer—Gonzalez and her husband spent about $30 per month on CDs.

Gonzalez is not the only good customer the RIAA has chosen to alienate. The organization also targeted a fully disabled widow and veteran for downloading over 500 songs she already owned. The veteran’s mobility was limited; by downloading the songs onto her computer, she was able to access the music in the room in which she primarily resides. The RIAA offered to settle for $2,000—but only if the veteran provided a wealth of private information regarding her disability and her finances.

Like a schoolyard bully, in my estimation the lawsuit campaign of the RIAA has been carried out with a singular focus: To inspire FEAR. In this case: FEAR in the hearts and minds of computer users who are or might become P2P file sharers, to change their behavior to prevent further sharing of music on P2P networks. In a society and political climate already rampant with fear and the rhetoric of fear, I personally find the RIAA’s tactics as well as overall campaign distasteful and repulsive.

RIAA Keep your Hands Off My iPod

What about legal music downloads from sites like iTunes, you might ask? I’ve wondered about this lately as well. According to the EFF report:

…the volume of downloads sold to date continues to pale when compared to the number of files swapped over P2P networks. The recording industry’s own international industry group, the IFPI, estimated in 2008 that there were 20 unauthorized downloads for every legitimate download purchased—in other words, as of January 2008, 95% of all digital music downloads were from unauthorized sources. In short, all of the authorized music services together do not yet amount to a drop in the digital music downloading bucket.

I think iTunes is and has been a great success in our evolutionary journey to become a more digital information society. It is clear, however, that just as RIAA lawsuits have not curtailed or “solved” P2P file sharing behaviors, neither has iTunes or other legal music and movie purchasing sites fully resolved these issues. What, then, is the best path forward?

According to the EFF report authors:

There is a better way. EFF advocates a voluntary collective licensing regime as a mechanism that would fairly compensate artists and rightsholders for P2P file sharing.

To learn more about that proposal, read the EFF’s April 2008 whitepaper “Let the Music Play.”

Will the RIAA’s leaders see the light and change their tactics? I’m sure their lawyers on retainer have enjoyed the income they’ve earned as a result of this litigation spree over the past five years. Let’s hope RIAA leaders don’t rely exclusively on the legal opinions of their now wealthier lawyers on this situation.

I don’t have any insider knowledge or a crystal ball, but I do know that in this situation as well as others “good leadership matters.” In multiple contexts, I’ve seen misinformed leaders without vision and understanding persist in counterproductive courses of action despite the best efforts of others to sway their opinion and change their perceptions. I hope the leaders of the RIAA setting policy for the organization will take the time to actually read these well-researched and thought-out reports from the EFF. There ARE more constructive paths forward than the harmful and fear-laden ones the RIAA’s leadership has chosen to pursue for the past half-decade.

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  • G. Bull

    Interesting thoughts about constructive approaches to intellectual property, with implications for education in the preceding post as well. More clarity on fair use in education would be a significant advance. Bernard Robin, chair of the SITE Digital Video SIG, is particularly interested in the issues raised in the comment about fair use for the K-12 On-line Conference.

    A group of us are developing a media presentation for the K-12 On-line Conference. We have some questions that we would like to discuss. (Sheryl is evidently out of contact because she is en route to New Zealand, so we sent an e-mail and also left a voice mail for you.) If you have a free moment, could you call? Thanks!

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Yes Glen, I will be glad to get in touch tomorrow. I’ve been entirely offline for 3 days so I’ll be catching up this week. I’ll look for your message though, thanks for the heads-up.

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