Monday, December 22, 2008

The Music Industry Ends its Campaign of Suing File-Sharers!

This is perhaps the biggest news in online media to occur in the past decade. At the end of last week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that it would stop bringing lawsuits against people who share copyrighted music files on the internet.

Downloaders of the world are rejoicing! In the war over sharing music, they have apparently won and the record industry has apparently lost. David has trumped Goliath. Not since the halcyon days of the original Napster have individuals been able to experience online freedoms without fear of retribution, until now.

Well, not quite. Amid all the hysteria, let's take a moment to examine what's actually going on here.

First of all, the record industry isn't throwing in the towel by any means. They are simply adjusting their strategy against piracy. Their new plan is to detect who is illegally sharing copyrighted files and alert the person's ISP about it. The ISP is expected to contact that person with a warning. After the third warning, the person's internet access will be cut off.

In other words, it's a three-strikes-and-your-out policy, with the hope being that the fear of losing one's internet access will be more of a deterrent than the threat of a lawsuit has been in the past.

Second, the downloaders shouldn't get credit for "winning" anything. Sure, their persistence has continued to be the biggest thorn in the side of the billion-dollar industry, however, the real catalyst for the RIAA's change in strategy was an economic one. They finally realized that the 35,000 lawsuits that they'd brought since 2003 wasn't giving them enough bang for their buck. That number clearly illustrates how their "subpoena, settle, or sue" process was little more than symbolic from the start, and the data proves how it had virtually no effect on deterrence. All it did was rack up lawyer fees.

Instead, the RIAA is hoping that their new strategy will simply streamline their costs. Rather than litigating through the court system, which has been mind-bogglingly expensive for them, they now plan on shifting the responsibility, and the associated costs, to the ISPs instead.

This is clearly a business decision focused on the bottom line, rather than any type of concession of defeat.

All of that said, this is gigantic news. In what has been the defining mainstream issue for the Internet Age up to this point, it is nothing less than a complete paradigm shift in norms and expectations.

The euphoria isn't without merit either. People who have been using peer-to-peer networks for legitimate purposes and sharing music files in a perfectly legal manner no longer have to fear undeserved retribution, and that is an extremely positive development. In fact, the very constitutionality of the RIAA's lawsuit strategy has been challenged in the courts by academics and scholars from ivy league institutions even recently.

So before anyone starts dancing in the streets believing that this is the heralding in of a new free-for-all internet era, take a deep breath and remember two things... 1) the recording industry is still trying to punish those who share copyrighted music files, they're just going about it in a different way, and 2) it is still 100% illegal under U.S. law to share copyrighted works without permission.

And that's the bottom line.


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