At the core of our perceptions of the mafia lie greed, the pursuit of profit and the bullying of the weak and innocent. But if that is our definition, then the insidiousness of people like Al Capone or Lucky Luciano pale in comparison to the ethics of our corporate royalty. The mere fact that certain corporations and organizations that are morally no different than members of the mafia consider themselves legitimate clearly demonstrates the hypocrisy.
The Recording Industry Association of America has thus devolved from a fairly innocuous organization to the latest incarnation of the mob. The advent of the mp3 music file and the proliferation of high-speed Internet brought the RIAA onto the scene nearly 10 years ago. Napster, the first peer-to-peer file-sharing service, was also the first victim. Dozens of similar programs were developed – Kazaa and LimeWire among them. Millions of people around the world were drawn into file-sharing.
Using the courts, the RIAA has tried to force file-sharing sites back into Pandora’s box. Much like the mafia, the RIAA decided intimidation was the best policy. Employing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 – itself a stricter manifestation of the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty – the RIAA has sued thousands and is planning to sue many more.
No one has been immune to the lawsuits. Children, the elderly, college students and even dead people are among the RIAA’s victims. Larry Scantlebury – the defendant in Warner Bros. v. Scantlebury and a former-Ypsilanti resident – died before his case was heard. Instead of dropping the lawsuit, the RIAA asked for a 60-day stay so his family could mourn before they were deposed.
In another case, Cassi Hunt, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contacted a representative of the RIAA, choosing as most of the thousands facing lawsuits to settle before going to court. Settlements have reached into the thousands. There have even been cases of RIAA representatives suggesting that students drop out of college in order to pay back debts.
But the true injustice lies with statutory penalties that the RIAA is pursuing. It seeks between $750 to $150,000 in compensation per song. A typical song on iTunes costs less than $1. Seeking that much in damages – a potential profit thousands of times the value of the song – is not morally justifiable. It is blackmail, plain and simple. Federal Judge David Trager from Brooklyn also sees a problem. In UMG v. Lindor, Judge Trager allowed the defendant to claim that the penalties demanded by the RIAA are “unconstitutionally excessive.”
In a lawsuit against Russian file-sharing website allofmp3.com, the RIAA asked for $1.65 trillion, an amount greater than Russia’s gross domestic product. The company that owns allofmp3.com claims it pays royalties to the Russian collection agency for copyrights and since allofmp3.com is not located in America, the RIAA has no grounds for a lawsuit. Further, if the RIAA was looking for suitable compensation, it should sue the collection agency, not allofmp3.com. All of this clearly demonstrates the unhealthy greed and the pathological obsession with file sharing of the RIAA.
Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar’s 2003 documentary, “The Corporation,” psychoanalyzed corporations as if they were people, noting that they have the same legal rights as people. If we were to characterize the RIAA as a person, it would be a cross between Robert Duvall’s character in “The Godfather,” Charles Dickens’s Scrooge and the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
I would never argue for anyone to break the law. However, I submit that in this case, the laws violate a consumer’s right to fair use and infringes upon the very property rights that make America free and democratic.
Jared Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.