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RIAA, the courts and musicians’ royalties

December 11, 2006

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RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has been a reliable organization that helps musicians receive their due royalty fee when someone uses their music. At least, until the growth of the Internet file sharing and music piracy that was blamed for rapidly declining album sales around the year 2000.

Since then, RIAA has become the symbol of a number of litigious actions that have made the news headlines. These legal actions against those the group identified as distributors of copyrighted music, which has famously included grandmothers, single mothers in economic hardship, and children, won the organization little sympathy from the general public.

While protecting copyrights is a fully legitimate concern, many believe the piracy that blossomed in first blush of the Napster and KaZaa was primarily due to the fact that there were no viable legal means to acquire music in mp3 format via the internet. That changed when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, the subsequent massive success of which would seem to illustrate consumers’ willingness to pay for music files on the internet if they are conveniently available.

These leagal actions have so far taken one of two ways. Mostly, they end up settled out of court. If settled out of court, they cost an average person between $3750 and $7500, possibly bankrupting them, increasing their credit card debt or reducing their child’s chances of hitting their mid-twenties with a college degree in their pocket.

Others go to court, and lately, many of those ask early on for the judge to grant a motion for summary judgement. Exactly that has happened in a newly surfacing Brooklyn, NY case, that of Electra Records Vs. Schwartz, a middle aged woman with Multiple Sclerosis who uses her computer to communicate with people by email.

In fact, Ms. Schwartz has never engaged in file sharing, has never heard of file sharing until the RIAA started knocking on her door, and has never downloaded music. The only evidence they have is that Ms. Schwartz paid for an internet access account. And RIAA is well aware of that. But it’s just a way to get to her daughter.

Other famous victims include Patti Santangelo, who remains firm in her decision to fight Warner Music, EMI, Vivendi Universal and Sony BMG, and another disabled mother, Tanya Andersen, who’s taken the attack to the labels as she sues them under the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act.

RIAA is not alone in this sue ’em all campaign. It has spread world-wide and RIAA clones and cohorts in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, are doing exactly the same thing.

Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has gathered a petition to stop the “madness” of suing “music fans, like 12 year-old Brianna LaHara, college student Cassi Hunt, and parent of five Cecilia Gonzalez” who “are being forced to pay thousands of dollars they do not have to settle RIAA-member lawsuits”. You can see the petition here.

This comes in a news-filled week for RIAA, since a judge in Oregon has in fact held the merely ‘making [a music file] available for distribution’ is a copyright infringement in itself, a motion which was already scheduled for argument on January 26, 2007, in Manhattan.

This is the first instance of which we are aware in which a judge has explicitly held that the RIAA‘s allegation of “making files available for distribution” is sufficient in and of itself to state a claim for relief under the Copyright Act.

To top it all, RIAA is currently petitioning the panel of federal government Copyright Royalty Judges to lower the rates paid to publishers and songwriters for use of lyrics and melodies in applications like cell phone ring tones and other digital recordings. In other words, to lower artist’s royalties.

“While record companies and music publishers were able to agree on royalty rates during that 25-year period, the assumptions on which those decisions were based have changed beyond recognition,” the RIAA brief reads.

Mainly, the fact that the Big Four pretended to care about the artists rights… and now they don’t pretend anymore.

Especially since, as far as money is concerned, the revenues regularly and routinely pulled down by the Big Four would easily support several under-developed countries.

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