written by Adam Frucci
The RIAA is the industry group that represents the four major record labels — Warner Music, EMI, Vivendi Universal, and Sony BMG — and all of their subsidiaries. They work on behalf of their members, and they have been accused of a wide range of offenses, from price-fixing to stifling innovation. They're able to perpetuate these crimes due to their huge bankroll, but that happens to be the one aspect of their organization we have control over. As consumers, we are the ones who stuff their coffers. By buying albums released by RIAA labels, we're giving them the money they use to sue our peers, stifle innovation, and force DRM down our throats. By cutting off their income stream, we can help make the RIAA less effective and therefore less damaging.
We're huge music fans here at Gizmodo, and that's why it's really hard to advocate not purchasing albums from artists we love. However, what everyone needs to understand is that we are in no means advocating piracy or not supporting musicians. The fact of the matter is, the RIAA's practices do not, in the end, support musicians or put money into their pockets. A fraction of the money from album sales actually makes it to artists, and not a single penny that the RIAA has received from their series of lawsuits has actually made it back to the artists that had their "copyrights infringed" in the first place.
The process that the RIAA has in place to find and sue plaintiffs is designed not to provide a fair trial and prove guilt, but rather to confuse and intimidate people into settling out of court. What exactly happens is too detailed and lengthy for me to go into here, but Grant Robertson's Layperson's Guide to Filesharing Lawsuits is a must-read for anyone interested in what exactly happened in the 20,000+ lawsuits (so far) the RIAA has brought upon the citizens of this country.
Recently, the RIAA began looking to streamline the entire lawsuit process by cutting courts, lawyers, and any semblance of due process out altogether. Their new plan is to have ISPs point people to p2plawsuits.com (catchy!) and offer to discount their settlement by $1,000 if they pay up without going to court at all. By avoiding the court system, the RIAA can avoid paying those pesky lawyer's fees. Even better for them, they plan to require ISPs to retain all of their customer records for at least 180 days in order to be eligible for the $1,000 discount. This would make everyone's surfing and downloading history available to a non-governmental organization in order to make it easier for them to gather evidence for their intimidation lawsuits.
Beyond the harassment, extortion, and privacy invasion that the RIAA commits under the guise of lawsuits, they also stifle innovation by treating any open Internet source as a potential way for people to violate their copyrights. Recently, they filed a "motion for reconsideration" in a suit claiming that anything downloaded via an Internet connection is the responsibility of the owner of said connection. While the RIAA is trying to make it easier for them to get money out of the parents of kids they sue, the precedent that it would set would make it difficult, if not impossible, for open WiFi hotspots to exist. That means that the RIAA would make it impossible for you to connect to the web for free while out in a city that provides Internet access merely because you might use it to download music.
Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is the software that makes it so music you buy from the iTunes Music Store can't play on any other player other than the iPod, such as a Zune or Sansa. In an effort to keep people from sharing legally purchased music, DRM actually goes much farther than copyright law dictates, denying paying customers the fair use of the music they buy. You should be able to do what you want with an album once you've paid for it; like a CD or a record, you now own it for life.
However, music wrapped in DRM software cannot be played on devices other than those explicitly tied to the store you brought it from. Furthermore, listening to your music across multiple computers, or moving your music to a new computer when you upgrade, is often a huge headache that ends with you needing to repurchase your songs.
In effect, the RIAA's insistence on strict DRM takes value away from legally purchased music. People have a choice: they can either pirate unrestricted MP3 files that will let them use them however they'd like, or they can pay for files that won't allow them the freedom to listen where and how they choose. It only makes sense that many tech-savvy people choose to download MP3s rather than pay for crippled files. The RIAA wants people to pay for restrictions and like it.
As we're a technology website, we're most in touch with the RIAA's actions in response to music downloading as opposed to their history of poor artist management and unfair retail tactics. However, it's worth noting that issues such as the underpayment of artists and album price-fixing are quite serious and should be considered as good a reason as any to keep your money from going to their pockets. Two articles worth reading to study up on how major labels screw over the artists they claim to represent are Courtney Love's speech to the Digital Hollywood online entertainment conference and The Problem with Music by Steve Albini. Both are written by artists who have first-hand knowledge of just how badly major labels take advantage of musicians, and both are guaranteed to change how you view the music industry
So what would we like to see happen? First and foremost, we want the lawsuits to stop. Treating normal people like common criminals and using fear tactics and intimidation to extort thousands of dollars from them goes against everything that this country stands for. Secondly, we want them to stop insisting that DRM software be used on all of their music being sold online. People are willing to pay for their music, but they deserve to be able to own that music and use it however they'd like once they purchase it. And lastly, we want the RIAA to stop trying to stifle innovation and control the future of the Internet merely because the possibility exists for piracy to happen using upcoming technologies.
But all these things, in the long run, are temporary solutions to a problem that will eventually end with a permanent solution. The fact of the matter is, the RIAA is becoming more outdated and unnecessary by the day. Their seeming inability to grasp the reality of today's music industry has doomed them, and there will come a time when they will cease to exist.
That's because the era of the major label is over. Why should a new band want to sign with one? They no longer need a $50,000 recording budget; more sophisticated and powerful home recording equipment and software is released every day. Music videos are cheaper to shoot and edit as well due to the lowered costs of cameras and computers. Promoting for radio is increasingly unnecessary, as more and more bands are discovered via blogs rather than through traditional channels. And manufacturing is slowly being erased from the picture altogether, allowing artists to distribute their music online with little overhead costs.While twenty years ago a band needed a record label to discover them, help them record, help them shoot a video, manufacture and then distribute their album, a resourceful band can do all of those things themselves. Eventually, bands will be able to sell their music online direct to fans with minimal reliance on a record label. The RIAA is teetering on the edge of irrelevance, and it's our job to give it a hearty shove. They can still do a hell of a lot of damage on their way down, and that's what we need to try to stop.