Monday, December 31, 2007


Spin Cycle

Record companies deserve their fate -- a lingering death in the face of the digital revolution.

It pains me -- a longtime music fan and a DJ (both in college and for many years afterwards) -- to say this. But the industry's perpetual insistence on finding ways to criminalize its customers leaves one no choice.

It was one thing for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to take the position that trading digital copies was theft (that winning argument that helped put Napster out of business).

But now, in its most recent litigation, the RIAA is asserting that making copies -- of one's own legally-purchased CDs on one's own computer -- should also be considered copyright violation!
Now, in an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.
The industry's lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" of copyrighted recordings.
"I couldn't believe it when I read that," says Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who represents six clients who have been sued by the RIAA. "The basic principle in the law is that you have to distribute actual physical copies to be guilty of violating copyright. But recently, the industry has been going around saying that even a personal copy on your computer is a violation."
While it is ridiculous, no one should be surprised: The companies have been trying to pull this kind of BS, quite literally for decades -- seeing every single technological innovation as an attack. In the early '80s, the RIAA managed to get Congress to add a special tax to blank tapes, arguing that "home taping was destroying the record industry." Congress, which of course never met a tax that it didn't like, went along -- even as evidence rolled in that the people who made the most home tapes were also the people who bought the most records and pre-recorded tapes.

So, now, rather than come up with innovative ideas such as producing and distributing good music, the companies are not merely going after customers, they are going after their computers and the CDs that they have already purchased (arguably, the precedent was set by the industry's insistence on adding DRM coding to digital outlets like iTunes, thus preventing someone from easily transferring one iPod's contents to another).

No wonder artists like Madonna, Radiohead, Prince (though, in one instance, he's stupidly followed the record companies and started litigation against his own fans) and others are crafting new ways to distribute their music and making money.

If contempt is the best that companies can show their customers, good riddance to them.

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