Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The RIAA, File Sharing, and Social Media

In the past few weeks, we've explored a number of issues relating to the law and Social Media. In a post entitled "Social Media, the Law, and the Court of Public Opinion," it was noted that "brands must become cognizant that the law provides no refuge from public opinion when graceless legal actions are taken."

Whether the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) actions with respect to file sharers has been graceless or not is perhaps a matter of opinion. One thing seems clear to me, however: The RIAA is attacking the problem as a legal predicament when the root of the issue has everything to do with consumer perception, communication, and marketing.

My viewpoint about music file sharing has tended to be far more sympathetic toward record companies than the vast majority of people. I believe that no amount of hatred of current record distribution systems justifies theft or the reduction of revenue to artists, technicians, producers, recording studios, marketers, and the host of people whose livelihoods rely on music sales.

That said, it is hard not to feel that the RIAA has been clumsy in its use of the law against file sharers. According to Wired, the RIAA's "massive litigation campaign... now includes more than 30,000 lawsuits targeting alleged copyright scofflaws on peer-to-peer networks. The targets include the elderly, students, children and even the dead."

The RIAA has been proven right on this matter in court--in a decision that may yet be reversed--but that hasn't benefited their cause at all. As Wired notes, "Despite the crackdown, billions of copies of copyrighted songs are now changing hands each year on file sharing services. Some are wondering if the campaign has shaped up as an utter failure."

It really should come as no surprise that the RIAA's litigation has had little effect on the problem. Not much has been done by way of communications, and legal approaches aren't likely to be successful in the interconnected and distributed world of Social Media. File sharing is, after all, a form of Social Media--one that can be used for very appropriate or very inappropriate means.

I'm sure the RIAA celebrated after winning their case against Jammie Thomas, but the reaction to this win on blogs and forums and in the media had to have given the organization some pause. Thomas, a Minnesota mother of three, was hit with a $222,000 judgment last year for sharing 24 tracks in her Kazaa folder. The decision in this case was an important legal "win" but probably did more harm than good on the real battleground--the attitudes of consumers. The legal judgment left people feeling sorry for Thomas and perhaps even more frustrated than ever at the music industry. (Despite the ruling, this case is far from concluded--the judge has since admitted a "manifest error" in instructing the jury that merely offering music was infringement.)

There is no question, even among the RIAA's most vocal detractors, that file sharing violates intellectual property protection at some level, so why is this situation so difficult for the music industry? Many argue that the industry must change and that it hasn't adapted to the age of digital music. I can't argue that line of reasoning, but I am not convinced that is ultimately the problem. After all, someone has to be responsible for covering the costs of recording and marketing for upcoming artists. If not record companies, then some other entity will play a similar role, promoting and sponsoring musicians in a way that provides profits to those involved with the creation and distribution of recorded music.

To me the problem is--as it often is--a communications issue. All that money spent on suing college students hasn't convinced people that records companies are important and viable. The RIAA's own actions have, in fact, encouraged the opposite perception: they appear fearful they have no relevance, seem unable to mount a valid case for their own existence, and give the impression they need the law to protect their precarious situation.

More lawsuits won't help the RIAA achieve its goals. Nor will raising the rates for Internet broadcasters: In yet another head-scratching move, the RIAA (through partner SoundExchange) convinced the Copyright Royalty Board to raise rates for broadcasting music over the Internet. This has resulted in more bad PR for the music industry as cherished music sites such as Pandora have announced they cannot make money and will have to shutter. More importantly, it seems to work exactly contrary to the RIAA's goals--should legal music sites disappear, there is no question illegal file sharing will increase.

It's been five years since the RIAA shifted their attention from suing file-sharing services to suing individuals, and I can't help but wonder if their world might not be considerably improved today if they'd opted for a strategy of communications rather than litigation. What if they existed in a world of transparency and consumers understood the value they bring to the table? What if instead of trying to frighten consumers the RIAA instead made it clear why consumers would want to support the efforts of record companies?

As will be learned time and time again, in an age of Social Media--with consumers having more power to communicate, collaborate, and share--winning in the courts but losing in the hearts and minds of consumers will create an unsustainable situation. Suing another 30,000 people will not change the minds of 300 million consumers--at least not the way the RIAA desires. It is well past time for the RIAA to engage consumers so that the purpose and place of record companies may be secured by consumer acceptance and not consumer fear.

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