Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

How to protect your rights as a music fan and put the music companies out of business – legally

The Recording Industry Association of America wants you to know that illegally downloading music is just like stealing a CD from a store. Not only that, it hurts the musicians that fans say they love. It's also responsible for declining CD sales.

All of these statements are demonstrable false. The truth is important because the music companies and their high-priced lobbyists are hitting up Congress for even more restrictive law against illegal downloading. Their ultimate goal is to make the practice not only illegal but impossible, by baking copy restriction into computers and music players.

Here are the facts, followed by ideas you can use to undercut the RIAA – legally:

Illegal downloading is not like theft of physical property, but an infringement of copyright. No less an authority than the U.S. Constitution makes this distinction. When physical property is taken, the Constitution mandates that the owner be compensated. But protection of intellectual property such as copyrights, trademarks and patents is optional. The music industry and its motion picture industry allies have gone to great lengths to blur this distinction, hoping that no one will notice the intellectual sleight of hand.

Article I, Section 8 Clause 8 gives Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

That's why patents eventually expire. Copyrights are supposed to as well, but companies that make a lot of money from copyrights such as Disney have, through the legalized bribery of lobbying, repeatedly gotten Congress to extend the deadline, a practice allowed by a recent Supreme Court decision. But Congress could just as legally restrict or even eliminate any intellectual property protection.

The key phrase here is "To promote the Progress ..." In other words, Congress is supposed to use copyright laws to encourage inventions and creations, at its discretion. Physical property rights are absolute, and need no such justification.

This is what the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America don't want you to think about. If the public decided that copyright and patent laws were too restrictive, they could force Congress to ease up.

Most artists don't get royalties from the music companies. Through Hollywood accounting, the music industry can create a paper loss, even when selling such popular groups as the Backstreet Boys. Since royalties are only paid after costs are recovered, each CD you buy gives most music groups no money at all. They have to go on tour to make money (what's left after the Ticketmaster monopoly gets its bite, but that's another story.)

Of course, the music companies know the public regards them with either indifference or hostility. Who cares, besides stockholders, if BMG or Warner Music takes a financial bath. The creative musicians are a much more appealing victim.

Most of the recent drop in music sales is accounted for by the slow economy and crappy music. Unless you love the edgy, groundbreaking style of Britney Spears and *Nsync, most new music sucks. So why waste increasingly scarce money on music?

The RIAA attributes the drop, about 9 percent in 2002 alone, to Internet downloading, and an RIAA-paid study backed its contention. However, independent studies challenge this claim. At most, illegal downloading is a contributing factor, but not the major reason for the drop, said James K. Willcox in Sound and Vision Magazine.

The points Willcox raises are powerful. For example, the gross domestic product dropped by a greater proportion than did music sales, and the music industry has been putting out fewer new releases in recent years. Read it here.

What to do about it:

Music is moving online. No one, not even the music industry, disputes this. Interesting boutiques such as Apple's iTunes store are just a foretaste about what is to come. The only real dispute is whether this music market will be controlled by the music industry, or allowed to function freely.

The best way to retaliate against the RIAA is to make sure it and affiliated music companies don't get your money. This starves the beast of the money it needs. But at the same time illegal downloading is dumb because (1) it confirms your dependence on their music and (2) it's illegal and you can get caught in the RIAA's tender grasp.

This means a boycott. Try not to buy music from the five major labels that dominate the RIAA. These are Warner Bros., Sony, BMG, EMI and Universal (the last is a special case that I'll examine shortly). You can do this by buying CDs whenever possible at used CD stores. The money you pay goes to the store, not to the RIAA. The music sounds just as good (if you've checked the CD carefully before buying) and you save a buck or two.

Universal might be worth supporting – it's going to reduce the price of its CDs to a retail price of about $10 each. That's a substantial cut and such reasonableness should be encouraged. So if Universal's sales skyrocket while the others fall, it will teach an important less. Of course, you have to know which artist is on which label, which most fans don't.

Another reason to ditch the RIAA's music is the advent of copy-restricted CDs. BMG is introducing one this month, featuring singer-songwriter Anthony Hamilton. This CD can only be copied to a limited number of devices, such as a music player with copy restriction. So the music won't play at all on your copy restriction-free MP3 player.

... or will it? There's a childishly easy answer, although there is some sound degradation: copy the analog output through the line-in device of a music recorder. The Archos Jukebox player/recorder or the RipFlash Plus recorder/player, among other devices, do this. Or just put the CD into a regular CD player and connect the output via a patch cord to the computer's line-in port to make your recording. With practice, you can reduce the loss in sound quality to a minimum only an audiophile would notice.

But better still, explore the world of online music. Everyone agrees that's where music is headed – the only question is whether the RIAA's legal goons will dominate it. So it's smart to get ahead of the trend and get as much music online as possible.

Look at who's providing music online, be it your favorite band or bands collected site such as mp3.com, dmusic.com or garageband.com. Often, the music is free, but even with paid music you'll get a minimal hassle. Online is the best place to find exotic or offbeat music that doesn't fit into the categories of music companies. And best of all, more of your money will go to the artist.

Remember, the RIAA and its snarling legal hounds are only nominally in the music business; they really exist to make money. Creative merit has no place in the corporate music world; it's nice but it doesn't pay the bills. But you, the music fan, and the music groups you follow, do care about quality and creativity. It's time you both combined to oust the meddling middleman and consigned the monopolist RIAA to its rightful place in the dustbin of history.

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