When was the last time you felt sorry for companies that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit each year by leeching onto artistic talent and suckling from the profits of other more innovative companies?
Well, this is exactly what companies like EMI and the Universal Music Group are doing behind the veil of the Recording Industry Association of America’s self-righteous crusade to protect copyright laws. Even my colleagues on the Daily’s editorial board seem to have bought into the rhetoric. Wednesday’s editorial (Facing the music, 03/07/2007) ignored the truth that the RIAA’s efforts are narrowly aimed at protecting the wallets of music executives at the expense of students. Artists and the intellectual property are simply an afterthought.
Last fiscal year, EMI – one of the Big Four album distributors that control nearly 95 percent of music distribution – recorded a net profit of $169 million. This fiscal year, another “Big Four” member, the Universal Music Group, is expected to bring in record profits from its deal with Microsoft.
The music industry’s demise at the hands of illegal downloading is a myth. By lobbying Congress to create broad “fair use” laws and maintaining their monopoly on the market, these companies are striking it rich despite what their rhetoric of victimization may lead you to believe.
If these industry moguls are really interested in fairness, they should look at the people they represent. Most artists only receive 15 percent of the commercial price of sold CDs. More disturbingly, artists only make that 15 percent on 85 percent of total sales because of an archaic clause from the days when about 10 percent of records would break during shipping. The reality is that artists make their money on tour and through merchandizing; industry groups make their money from albums. Downloading threatens the mainstream, commercial artists and promotes local bands and record companies. The Big Four just can’t have that.
Regardless of these facts, many still contend that by pursuing litigation, the RIAA is simply protecting its copyrights. There is nothing wrong with that, but the new campaign against students is specifically designed to skirt legal solutions on the constitutionality of file sharing. Let me explain.
Since the 2005 Supreme Court decision in MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., in which the recording industry scored a partial victory against file-sharing sites, little has changed in the volume of downloading copyrighted music. Instead, file-sharing sites have moved offshore or avoided the law with user agreements that shift the responsibility to users. The RIAA must now target individual users, fighting privacy law and internet providers just to receive damages. Originally the music industry’s strategy revolved around blanketing users with excessive lawsuits designed to scare them into compliance. This new strategy has backfired in cases like UMG v. Lindor, in which a Brooklyn federal court is hearing a challenge to the $750 per song damages sought by the RIAA.
With so much not going its way, the RIAA is turning to an easier target – college students. Because they lack the finances to challenge the RIAA in court, students are more likely to settle, and the RIAA can receive its inflated damages while skirting the hard constitutional challenges and avoiding the complex laws that deal with internet service providers. If new cases reach the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that the music industry will substantially redefine the fair use precedent set in the 1984 in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal Studios, which protected VCR recording as a fair extension of intellectual property use.
If the music industry is serious about ending illegal downloading, it should pursue the high-profile cases that will help define the law. Until that happens, the public will be uncertain what these laws mean and people will break them. The RIAA should also be pushing the companies it represents to develop an encoding system that promotes the law. Free downloading sites like Ruckus aren’t a viable solution because the encoding system is flawed. Students can use programs like TuneBite to convert the self-terminating mp4 files from Ruckus into mp3 files that don’t terminate and are illegal. College students are a step ahead of a billion-dollar industry – something is wrong about that.
None of these arguments are a justification for illegal downloading. But the RIAA’s campaign against students is not perpetuating justice – it is a greedy action designed to avoid the comprehensive legal solution that intellectual property law needs. We can’t let the law stand in the way of advocating justice and student concerns.
Gary Graca is an LSA freshman and an associate editorial page editor.