Don't Sue Your Customers


A few days ago I wrote about the importance of appreciating long-abandoned ways of doing things. What I did not suggest was that one should hold on to the past like a tattered security blanket, which, sadly, is precisely what the Internet-phobic Recording Industry Association of America is doing with its ill-conceived legal strategy.

The increasingly outrageous developments in the RIAA's case against admitted file-swapper Joel Tenenbaum make the music industry's out-of-touch trade group look greedier and more shortsighted with each passing day. The RIAA clearly is emboldened by the jaw-dropping verdict handed to file-swapping single mom Jammie Thomas-Rasset last month. (Always good business to blow your legal budget on suing a woman with very limited resources, and who has said she has no intent of paying.)

I'm not going to speculate on whether Tenenbaum or Thomas-Rasset are unethical people who knowingly tried to take advantage of a music industry loophole. It's impossible to know exactly what their motivations are. I'm also not about to pretend I understand the intricacies of how the law is applied in file-sharing cases. But what I do know is this: The RIAA is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You do not sue your customers because they're taking advantage of a new marketplace (the big, scary Internet) you've chose to ignore at your own peril. You do not sue your customers because they're a step ahead of you. And you certainly don't sue your customers for more money than they'd spend on music in 20 lifetimes.

Most important, you don't sue your customers for sharing what they've bought, especially when there's evidence that the sharing isn't hurting the industry, and may in fact be helping it. Do you see Amazon out there suing people for sharing the books they finish because it might be eating into sales of the Kindle? Studies such as the one detailed here indicate that the very file-sharing the RIAA is trying to eradicate has had little or no affect on music sales. Meanwhile, there's a growing roster of musicians who argue that file-swapping helps them expand their audiences.

Of course, if the Tenenbaum defense wasn't employing such a mystifying legal strategy, there'd be an opportunity to shine a spotlight on such arguments, and a legal precedent could be set that would acknowledge reality, and knock some sense into the RIAA's legal wonks. Instead, we can all count on an out-of-proportion judgment that will no doubt encourage the RIAA to continue down its path of self-destruction, PR nightmare be damned.

No matter how many times I've read and written about the file-sharing controversy over the years, I can never help but think about how, during my teenage years, if I'd had to buy all of my music, I'd have heard a hell of a lot less. My friends and I acquired music during that time pretty much the same way as everyone else. Whenever one of us got a new tape, he'd make copies for the others in the group. If the RIAA had used its current strategy to combat the rampant sharing of the cassette tape era, it would have had to prosecute pretty much every teenager and college student in the nation. Let's hope that, eventually, the record labels see the value of file-sharing as a music discovery tool and decide to give their lawyers a break.


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