It’s not often that I get involved in breaking news like this. Typically, a company briefs me on an announcement and if I like what’s being announced I might provide a quote for a press release. But under the rubric of CRM, I got a press release this morning with the following headline which I thought I should share:
“Harvard professor & students fight the RIAA: Come to Rhode Island federal court to protect defendant’s family”
The RIAA, in case you don’t know is the Recording Industry Association of America an association that, among other things, seeks to protect the patents and copyrights of recording companies and their artists. To net it out, RIAA is the group that would sue you for illegally sharing songs across the Internet.
The federal case referred to in the PR headline is one of that ilk. The suit in question involves one Joel Tenenbaum, a graduate student at Boston University who is being sued for more than a million bucks for allegedly sharing seven songs on the Kazaa file-sharing network.
It gets better, or worse depending on your perspective. RIAA is in federal court today not for Joel but for mom and dad a.k.a. Arthur and Judie. RIAA wants the Tenenbaums to produce their home computer for inspection to determine if any songs were illegally shared on that machine as well as Joel’s. Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson and his team of students will defend the Tenenbaums against the RIAA in this action and I presume it is not the RIAA that issued the press release.
With all of the negative news percolating through the burned out economy, I guess we could all use a chuckle these days and this is as close as we can get. This action is absurd on so many levels but let me just take one, my favorite, the customer relationship.
On the face of it the RIAA has every right to defend its copyrights but it seems proportionality and commonsense have evaporated. A million bucks? For seven songs? It appears that the RIAA is engaging in predatory and malicious prosecution designed to put a significant financial strain on any family unlucky enough to be caught in its cross hairs. A judgment in the RIAA’s favor would bankrupt most American families though I do not know the Tenenbaums circumstances. So the family must necessarily mount a legal defense that will reach into the thousands and maybe tens of thousands to resolve. Remortgage the house! Cash in the retirement savings! That’s the real punishment the Tenenbaums will face regardless of any verdict arrived at in the courts.
What does RIAA get? Hard to say other than maybe an immoral “moral victory”.
Many years ago, before the fax machine went into general use, I waited tables, tended bar and did what students do to make ends meet. At one of my jobs, at least, we sold Pepsi and other non-Coke products. This was an era when the Coca-Cola company was (and probably still is) trying to protect its brand. Coke would send its “shoppers” into the establishment and order Coke and it was our job to say, “We don’t sell Coke, would Pepsi (or any other brand) be OK?” Inevitably, the customer would agree and that would be that.
It got to the point where you knew who the shoppers were and you would make sure to make the proper statement. Once I forgot and word got back to my boss and I got chewed out. I don’t think Coke ever pressed charges and I am not sure about the statute of limitations but I am in the phone book if anyone cares.
What’s interesting to me about this case in Rhode Island is that the RIAA is fighting so hard to preserve an old paradigm that has so obviously reached the end of the line. RIAA is out in the market trying to protect its franchise on CD sales in an era when kids buy music CDs, rip the songs to their MP3 players and iPods and forget about the plastic or they just download, legally.
Music has been commoditized but the RIAA refuses to accept it. The Internet has commoditized print (ask the newspapers), telephone and photography to name a few industries. In all of these industries companies have to work harder and sell more just to stay in place. Each of these industries has seen a rash of innovation by the vendors to adapt to the new reality—admittedly a work in progress for most. But the RIAA puts all of its energy and innovation into litigation against its own customers. How smart is that?
In the absence of leadership by RIAA, recording artists like the Grammy winning Maria Schneider are quietly going about setting up their own distribution systems. Schneider is a talented Jazz composer and leader of a big band who writes the music, packages it and sells it through her Web site. There’s no record company to tell her what to write or record or what her schedule is. Schneider plays a lot of gigs and solicits feedback from her audience in person and on the Web. Imagine that!
It’s independent artists that are the big threat to the RIAA but RIAA can’t see it because their paradigm of the music industry doesn’t acknowledge people like Schneider. It’s the people like Schneider not the Tenenbaums who will decide the future of the music industry.
In a system like the music industry, there is bound to be some leakage, the nature of the product is that it cannot be completely contained any longer once it leaves the vendor and vendors need to find ways to leverage that reality. If the RIAA was at all clever, it would abandon the malicious prosecution tactic and innovate around the idea of making music affordable and easy to down load legally. Sort of what Apple did.
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Hence the slogan of indie label Bullseye Records out of Toronto: “Not Suing Our Customers Since 1985!”