The RIAA Flap

An article in the Washington Post from last December (picked up by other news organizations) claimed “the industry [i.e., the RIAA] maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.”
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You can imagine the outrage; that not only flies against logic, but court rulings that allow, for example, copying a TV show for your personal use so you can watch it later. Only trouble is, the Post didn’t tell the whole story.

The RIAA was prosecuting someone who had, yes, copied files from purchased CDs to his computer. But the problem was that the files were placed in a shared Kazaa folder, thus making the music potentially downloadable to millions. I read every page of the Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Brief in Support of Their Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Court’s Order of October 3, 2007 (the things I do for you guys!), and the suit is entirely about intent to distribute and actual distribution.

Some point to comments from Jennifer Pariser, Sony BMG’s chief of litigation, who testified in court that “when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song” as evidence that the industry thinks simply copying a song to your hard drive is stealing. But technically, you are making a copy, and it is unauthorized. So yes, you can “suppose” that’s stealing . . . except that fair use precedent says you won’t get in trouble for it. Has Sony prosecuted anyone solely for copying a CD to their computer? No. In fact, they make software for copying music to their MP3 players.

I believe the record industry and the RIAA have blown it when it comes to dealing with the digital genie that got let out of the bottle: After all, it took a computer company to come up with a viable model for digital downloads. The established companies tended to pick the wrong battles to fight, at the wrong times, in the wrong way.

But that has nothing to do with the fact that distributing music without authorization is morally wrong, and illegal. Unless the copyright laws change, the RIAA has every right to go after people who distribute copyrighted material without authorization—but no right to prosecute people who purchase music, then copy it to their own computer (or a portable player) for their personal listening pleasure.