Saturday, March 31, 2007

If We're the Pirates, Then Why is the RIAA Acting Like Captain Hook?

In the heated debate between the Recording Industry Association of America and advocates of the current file sharing free-for-all, the starkness of the two choices often blinds participants to the possibility of a third way. In their zeal to protect the right to freely download as much music as possible on peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and Limewire, the digital generation conveniently forgets that free music downloads mean that their favorite artists get no compensation for the work that they have done. Likewise, in championing the cause of the copyright, the RIAA has alienated music fans and driven the digital music revolution underground.

File sharing is here to stay. A technology, once invented, cannot be wished away by any amount of legal action or by massive fines imposed on users of that technology. The RIAA would do well to realize finally that their old mode of distribution is crumbling, and if it wants to get any piece of the digital pie, it should sign on to a subscription scheme like the one outlined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This middle path, that would allow users to continue downloading any music they desire using a program of their choosing, would nevertheless come with a nominal monthly charge that would be distributed directly to artists based on the popularity of their songs. The aggregated money would be on the order of $3 billion annually in pure profit, and would bring file sharing into the light.

Of course, the real benefit of such a plan could be the end of the RIAA itself, or at least the end of the current system within which it operates. Musicians could bypass record labels, producing and promoting their music to a mass audience on the web. Musicians who still want to use the services of producers and promoters supplied by record labels would still have greater control over their music, because the power would be shifted from recording industry middle men to the artists and fans, where it belongs.

Personally, I see nothing morally wrong with downloading any music that I choose. If I want to support a band or an artist, I can do so by buying a CD if I so choose, by attending a concert, or by promoting the band or artist among my friends. The only problem arises when an artist is not fairly compensated for their work. I would gladly pay a monthly fee for unlimited downloads if I thought that money would land in the pockets of my favorite musicians. I certainly do not want to force artists out of the music business because they cannot make a living. Still, it does not seem fair that I should be denied the legal right to listen to music simply because the RIAA wants to maintain its commercial stranglehold on the industry. Music should be about the artists and the fans, not about corporate suits whose only interest lies in maximizing their own profits.

In the mean time, I will continue to download music. I am doing so purely for my own personal enjoyment, not to "pirate" copies for resale. Looking back at the history of radio, television, VCRs, DVD recorders, Digital Video Recorders and other technologies, it is easy to see the pattern of industry disapproval. People with a lot of money always want to protect their right to make even more, even if that is not what is good for society. Stifling innovation in the name of capitalistic greed is not my idea of taking the moral high ground. The RIAA should stop trying to maintain control over a broken system, and start working to correct that system for the sake of fans and artists alike.

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