Charles Nesson, Harvard Law Professor, has filed a counterclaim lawsuit against the Recording Industry Association of America. If you haven’t heard of the R.I.A.A., their self-defined mission statement is as follows:

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry. Its mission is to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members’ creative and financial vitality. Its members are the record companies that comprise the most vibrant national music industry in the world.

Nesson is defending a Boston University graduate student who is facing up to $1 million in fines from the government courtesy of the R.I.A.A. The statute in question is The Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 (H.R. 3456). This statute forces the perpetrator (i.e. person who downloads copyrighted material) to pay a minimum fine of $500 per file if the infringement is incurred unknowingly, and jumps up to an unrealistic $150,000 per file if it is done “willingly.”

This act was passed in 1999, but I think back to when I moved into my dorm my freshman year at the University of California, Davis in 2001. The very first thing one of my floor mates did was install his computer and immediately began downloading movies and music, as to take advantage of large amount of bandwidth that was initially at his disposal for everyone else was busy moving in. He must have downloaded over 75 movies and a countless amount of music without any kind of punitive action.

I never truly understood how the R.I.A.A. goes after people when the above example is a common story amongst most people who attended college in the early part of this decade. More importantly, I completely agree with Mr. Nesson’s analysis that the current copyright model is outdated and needs to revamped.

I also very much agree with Mr. Nesson’s desire to protect artists, but in my opinion the R.I.A.A. was not necessarily formed to protect artistic integrity. In fact I believe it was made in order to protect those who rarely create the art they are marketing (the record industry).

According to A Band’s Guide to Getting a Record Deal by Will Ashurst, labels own the copyrights AND the master copies of music made by artists, not the artists themselves. The artist will usually only make enough to pay the label back for all the money the label invested in distribution, marketing, and producing the artistic content. Very rarely do the artists themselves make a profit. The margin of profit for artists only increases when an artist decides to re-sign with a label. Check out this Wikipedia article, for a few famous examples of this at work. If this is the case, then based upon the R.I.A.A.’s mission statement, they are merely protecting their own profits and not working in the interest of the artist. In essence they are boxing the artist out of truly capitalizing on their own content.

It would be quite foolish for anyone to think that the R.I.A.A. protects anyone, but themselves. In fact I would wager that the “music community” Ms. Duckworth, the Director of Communications at the R.I.A.A., is referring to in her statement is the recording industry and not the artists. (When I called the R.I.A.A., Ms. Duckworth was not available for comment on her statement). UPDATE: Ms. Duckworth got back to me and this is what she had to say:

“The term ‘music community’ in my quote is primarily attributed to the recording industry which has had to endure thousands of layoffs over just a few short years, mostly because of the damages caused by illegal file-trading. These damages triggers a domino effect felt not only throughout the music industry but the entire U.S. economy, as noted by the stats in my quote.”

Not to sound cruel, but I personally have no compassion for those who are taking advantage of other people’s talent and creativity.

I know that personally I would never have been able to build such a diverse appreciation for music without being allowed to fully explore the discography of artists. Now some would claim that I am taking money away from the artist, but as discussed above the amount of money an artist makes off of the sale of a single record is quite minuscule. However, all of the money that I did put into purchasing tickets to concerts and merchandise the band gets a larger percentage of and I would never have gone to see an artist if I wasn’t able to fully listen to their music first.

The most interesting part about this entire conversation is to see how artists have adapted to the current state of technology, while the R.I.A.A. remains the same. Radiohead set a new precedent this year by allowing fans to determine the price of their most recent release In Rainbows. Other artists have embraced what file sharing has done for them. I can think of a handful of bands that would never have received any kind of national exposure without the file-sharing element of the internet.

The most important thing here is that the R.I.A.A. has remained a monolith while the artists that they serve have had to adapt. File-sharing is never going to stop. There will always be music blogs, file-uploading websites, and torrents that are going to disseminate music and other copyrighted material, whether the R.I.A.A. likes it or not.

This equalizing of the playing field for artists is something that I love, for the work I do garners more opportunities for artistic students (hopefully like you!) to gain more exposure in addition to sharing their work with the rest of us.

Regardless, this is the future and the sooner we re-vamp our copyright practices the better.