RIAA Increasing Pressure on Higher Ed

This AP piece reports that the RIAA “is sending thousands more complaints to top universities this school year than it did last year as it targets music illegally downloaded over campus computer networks.”

Some schools are playing along, investigating music copying and in some cases punishing students with revocation of internet service or academic suspension. This is ridiculous. First of all, as Purdue’s spokesperson says, “In a sense, the (complaint) letter is asking us to pursue an investigation and as the service provider we don’t see that as our role.”

But more generally, if the RIAA asked your school to crack down on students making mix tapes for their friends, would you collaborate? What if publishers complained that students were sharing books?

Behavior that infringes on copyright has been ignored or shielded by fair use for years; only now with computers these behaviors are much easier and more efficient. Now all of a sudden the industry has a problem. The fact is, when I make a mix for my friend (fair use), I am giving her an unrestricted digital copy of the songs. And every song that passes through my computer is being copied in several locations (hard drive, program memory, audio buffer, etc.). If making digital copies is copyright infringement, then playing any digital content is copyright infringement.

Even DRM schemes don’t prevent copying, they just make it more of a hassle. Just like getting dragged into your dean’s office for listening to mp3s.

The RIAA is not — because it can’t be — acting on principle. They will take this as far as they can before we stop them. We have a choice of two future worlds: one in which digital files are freely copied, or one in which we pay for every time we open a file. Which do you prefer?

4 replies on “RIAA Increasing Pressure on Higher Ed”

Do we really have only two choices? In a world where I can choose between 150 different kinds of black tea, do I only have two choices here? I’m really in the formation stage of my thoughts on this, but aren’t there some cases where the rights of the artist do mandate restrictions on downloading? I have some friends who are in a band. Their record was released on a tiny label that is now defunct. The each made about $25K last year on touring, selling t-shirts, selling CDs, and, yes, getting people to pay for downloading their music. I just wonder if this ‘all free’ approach doesn’t ask artists to be the only people to opt out of modes of capitalist exchange. Why are musicians asked to make their labor free while the rest of us get compensated? Can you help me think about this?

@ Emily:

You’re right. I was feeling particularly political when I posted and took a rather black-and-white stance.

What I failed to distinguish was the licensing issue from the copying issue. If your band sells mp3s and you don’t sue anyone for sharing them, you are allowing free copying (as in freedom, not $0) because mp3s can be easily copied.

Creative Commons offers licenses for artists to keep some of their copyright privileges but waive others. So the licensing issue has many variables and a lot of gray area.

But as for the copying issue: if your music is in a digital format, then in order to enjoy it, users must make copies. That’s just how computers work. There are ways, technological, social, and legal, of making unauthorized copying or repurposing more difficult, but there is no way around that basic fact.

See my previous post on Open Access. There, some alternative (sustainable, successful) models of publishing are discussed in which there is no pay-per-download feature. And your comment itself points to alternate sources of revenue for artists, should they decide not to charge for downloads.

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