Sometimes an industry can be so obnoxious it’s hard to know what to say. Citing a 31 percent drop in sales of recorded music, the Recording Industry Association of America has decided to sue those individuals who share music files over the Internet. A big “win” came recently when the RIAA gained a $2,000 settlement from a 12-year-old girl living in New York public housing.
As nasty and counterproductive as this approach might be, the RIAA isn’t wrong on principle. The companies own rights to the music, as do the musicians who write and perform the songs.
Still, it’s hard to be sympathetic toward a multibillion-dollar industry that is trying to prop up declining sales by suing its customer base. It’s especially hard to feel sympathy toward the industry given how slow it has been to embrace the technology it is now battling. But stupidity doesn’t undermine one’s property rights.
Rather than offer consumers online options, RIAA and its member companies have generally tried to stop the burgeoning new technology through a series of lawsuits and public service announcements equating file-sharing with shoplifting. Some compare the industry to the Luddites, the 19th-century weavers who destroyed mechanical looms to maintain their pre-eminence in the industry. The analogy isn’t that good, given the recording industry is using legal means, but there is some truth here. Fighting an emerging technology always fails.
Even some libertarians argue that intellectual property is different from material property. Unlike land or cars — material things — they say intellectual property is a fiction created by government. There should be no patents or copyrights, and people should be free to exchange and copy music, books or other similar items without paying royalties.
Yet the person who wrote a book or produced a song has created something that he or she should own. What incentive would there be to produce intellectual items in a communistic system, in which anything anyone produces is owned by everyone?
These words, whatever their limited worth, are still the property of this newspaper group. As their creators, we have ownership rights to sell them. If others simply take the words we create and reproduce them without paying, that is a form of theft.
Nevertheless, the recording industry, just like the publishing industry, is faced with dramatic changes in technology, the likes of which were not imagined when copyright law was developed. It’s wise for industries to figure out ways to embrace the new technologies. For instance, this newspaper and most others put their efforts into developing Web sites rather than suing readers who make unauthorized copies of articles. The goal is to attract new paying subscribers, not punish them for their interest in the product.
By contrast, the recording industry is convinced it can revive its lost market share through legal hardball. It would be wise to follow the ideas advanced by the National Research Council’s Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. In its book, “The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property In The Information Age,” the NRC argues, “Simply put, because digital content is difficult to protect, it can be very profitable to find a business model that does not rely primarily on technical protection, or even one that exploits tendencies to share and redistribute content.”
The recording industry need not toss aside its intellectual property rights, but it should develop a better model than siccing lawyers on 12-year-olds.