On Thursday, Oct. 4, the jury in Capitol Records v. Jammie Thomas delivered a guilty verdict, and the civil suit against Thomas, a single mother in Minnesota, became the first legal victory for the Recording Industry Association of America against an accused file sharer. The jury found Thomas liable for willful copyright infringement when she uploaded 24 copyrighted songs for public download, and ordered Thomas to pay the association $222,000. While the recording industry is popping its champagne corks in triumph, some believe that the award of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, or $9,250 per song, is ludicrous. In any case, it is worth taking a look at the true motivations behind these lawsuits and the aggressive tactics of the RIAA. It is apparent that this lawsuit illustrates the desperation of the RIAA and its inability to adapt to a competitive music industry gearing up for the 21st century.
America caught on to the music industry’s inflated and fixed prices of CDs in 2002 when the world’s five major music companies, along with the three largest music retailers, agreed to pay a settlement of $142 million out of a class-action lawsuit accusing them of price-fixing. These companies (BMG Group, EMI Group, Sony Music Group, Vivendi Music Group and Warner Music group) had agreed to pay retailers advertising fees in exchange for keeping prices above a specified level. But rather then actually admit to wrongdoing, the industry agreed to a settlement in which it would pay roughly $8 to any user who registered as part of the class, and donate thousands of unwanted CDs to public libraries. The prices of CDs remain unchanged. This submissive tactic undermines the whole idea of the free market and competition, and the advent of electronic file-sharing in the digital age is a reaction to the artificially high cost of music. If the industry would lower its price tags to fair prices, closer to the actual production cost of a CD (a little less than a dollar), people would reconsider trusting these dubious salesmen.
The RIAA are not only hurting the competitive market, but also the recording artists they represent. Many of the artists signed to major labels are on Internet artist rosters for one reason: They sell records. Artists, unless they are influential enough to negotiate their own record deal, are trapped as pawns for music labels to make money. Recording artists make merely a small fraction of the sale of a CD, leaving them in a position where they are unable to experience their success as thriving artists.
Not only has the RIAA taken hold of the price of music, it has also affected the quality of music available for consumers. Since the industry has become completely fixated on profit, music companies attempt to acquire acts that have showed some success, without regard for musical authenticity, individuality or mere talent. Acts are no longer glorified by their own sound, but are packaged and marketed to resemble existing bands as much as possible, and consumers are manipulated to decide what kind of music to purchase by how much a prospective artist is similar to an already marketed one.
More importantly, the RIAA refuses to restructure their aging business model and is failing to account for a changing market where people consider multiple forms of accessing and purchasing music. Apple’s iTunes music store provides six million songs at a user’s fingertips 24 hours a day. Where the majority of the songs available cost 99 cents and $9.99 for an entire album, there is no reason for music enthusiasts to waste money on gasoline, overpriced selections at the store and sacrifice their personal time.
iTunes customers also have a feature known as ‘Just For You,’ where users are given suggestions of other music to look into judged by past purchases. Online retailer Amazon.com recently unveiled its own music download store where it promises to go beyond Apple in making legal downloading accessible. Amazon’s two-million-song catalogue ranges from 89 cents to 99 cents and all songs are free of digital rights restrictions. This means that any song downloaded from their Web site can be played on any computer, any mp3 player or be burned on any CD without complication.
The RIAA should take these recent adaptations and apply them to its dinosaur-age business model where it is literally fighting itself in order to stay afloat in a world turning to the Internet for all its daily needs. The Internet allows users to decide on the content they view and instantly provides consumers alternatives to products they want to buy. The decision of rock-and-roll giant Radiohead to independently release its new album ‘In Rainbows’ is more indication that artists, not only consumers, are leaving behind corporations who undermine their dedication and pocket profits.
The RIAA may have the right to prosecute those engaging in copyright infringement, but if the industry wishes to remain viable and competitive in this new digital age, it should try to adapt accordingly and hesitate to make examples of defenseless individuals.
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