RIAA Behaving Badly; Let's Cut Their Copyright Privileges - InformationWeek

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1/2/2008
06:50 AM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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RIAA Behaving Badly; Let's Cut Their Copyright Privileges

Innocent consumers are being bothered by another round of the record industry behaving badly, via more lawsuits and anti-copying threats. This time, though, I've got a solution. We should do what we do to children who misbehave: Take away their privileges. Here's the deal.

Innocent consumers are being bothered by another round of the record industry behaving badly, via more lawsuits and anti-copying threats. This time, though, I've got a solution. We should do what we do to children who misbehave: Take away their privileges. Here's the deal.The latest outrage in the record companies' ill-conceived war against their customers comes via a Washington Post report that the RIAA is suing someone for ripping to their computer copies of CDs they've bought and paid for. A subsequent clarification shows that this particular case is more about placing MP3 files in a shared directory, rather than ripping, per se. But the record companies still say ripping your own CDs is stealing.

The upshot is that the threat of winding up in court still hangs over the heads of everyone who owns a computer and listens to music. That Maroon 5 album you got for Christmas could conceivably get you sued if you dare to transfer it to your MP3 player without purchasing it all over again on iTunes or Napster.

Clearly, downloading songs from a peer-to-peer network without paying for them is wrong. But what you play on your own devices with music you've paid for should be your own business. Heck, I've probably bought most Beatles albums four times -- in vinyl, eight-track, cassette, and CD formats.

Just like self-help fanatics who peg everyone who's ever taken a drink as an alcoholic, the RIAA would put every 10-year-old who's played the Bob The Builder theme song on their PC in the dock as a music pirate. (OK, for that metaphor to work I should have used "The Wiggles.")

This situation can't be allowed to stand. It's time to pull the rug out from under the RIAA's legal strategy of intimidating lots of "little people" for whom several thousand dollars to settle is a cheaper way out than a lawyer they can't afford. (Here's an unusual case where the RIAA seems to have made the mistake of picking on somebody its own size.)

Pity the poor record companies. For years, they were given a license to print money, via the generous copyright laws which grant rights, in corporate-authorship situations, for 75 years. In 1998, just as Disney's key Mickey Mouse copyrights were about to expire, this was unbelievably extended to up to 125 years (in certain cases) in legislation introduced by former singer Sonny Bono.

Now that times are tough, though, the record companies have shown they're clueless. Rather than forge a new business model to make money in the age of the Internet, they're fighting a losing battle to hold on to an era that's already passed. OK, if they're unable to handle the copyright benefits they've been like generously awarded, we should do what we do when a child shows they can't handle a privilege they've been granted. We should take it away.

How about we cut the copyright terms down to five years. Retroactively. So now "Stairway to Heaven" is in the public domain. Hey, the ongoing RIAA lawsuit problem is gone in one fell swoop.

Do I hear some objections in the courtroom, like if we cut down copyright protections, artists lose out? This would be a legitimate complaint if artists really benefited currently from copyright. But they mostly don't. It's generally the large corporations who extract the maximum benefit from their rights, and then trickle a little of it down to songwriters and authors. (Even a little blogger such as myself doesn't own the rights to his own words; my employer does. Yeah, I know: "But they give you a job and they pay you." Whatever.)

What about those who say copyrights are some kind of God-given right, which is our due under a capitalist system? That's simply a misunderstand of their purpose. Copyrights, like patents, weren't implemented to protect their owners in perpetuity. They are part of a delicate dance which attempts to balance societal benefits against incentives for writers and inventors. The intent is that you want to incentivize people to push the state of the creative and technical arts, but you don't want give those folks such overbearing protections that future advances by other innovators are stifled.

Indeed, that's the crux of the current debate over patents, where the thinking is that there are too many companies which are nothing more than patent trolls, and that their manipulation of the legal system is subverting the intent of the patents in the first place. Fortunately, what's happening with copyrights is much easier to parse, mostly thanks to the ham-handed tactics of the RIAA.

The third, and most valid, argument against my plan is that, without copyright protection, creativity will wither. People won't create books, songs, and movies if they know there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (Again, I remind everyone that most musicians and writers don't make squat under the current system. Judging by all the free novels and music posted by both indie types and more establishment figures (e.g., Cory Doctorow's stories), that's simply not a believable argument. Indeed, forward-looking types like Prince have moved to models where they give away their albums to promote the concerts where they make their real money.

The only ones who'll get hurt by cutbacks in copyright protections are the record labels and big book publishers. But the music industry has shown by its behavior that it has lost all claims to such rights. Indeed, I suspect that we'd be doing the RIAA something of a favor, by putting it, and ourselves, out of its misery.

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