Time to pay the piper

Those who had to swallow subpoenas - and write checks for thousands of dollars, in some cases - downloaded more than a thousand purloined files and made their stashes available to any and all comers over the 'Net. That's not "sharing." That's distributing stolen goods, even if the distributor isn't receiving any money in return and even if the distributor is in junior high school or a member of AARP.

The headlines last week were inescapable:

"261 lawsuits filed over music thefts" - The New York Times

"Record labels settle first of 261 stolen-music suits" - Reuters

"261 lawsuits target Internet file crooks" - Detroit News

OK, those headlines didn't originally contain the words "thefts," "stolen-music" or "crooks." But that's only because the media in general continues to characterize these transactions as "sharing," "swapping" and "trading" - think kids in a sandbox, a potluck supper - while the music industry, intellectual property law and the courts charged with interpreting that law continue to make clear that we're talking about illegal activity.

Hence the sob stories last week about grandfathers and 12-year-olds getting slapped with subpoenas right alongside the usual suspects more commonly associated with this activity: college kids and other freeloaders.

Gramps should know better. And while only the heartless would withhold all sympathy from parents who have to pony up for the misdeeds of their youngsters, this holds true whether those misdeeds involve tossing rocks through schoolhouse windows or trafficking in stolen music.

But the misconceptions surrounding this issue are maddeningly impervious to facts, logic and established law.

An example: Despite the press-fueled impression that anyone who ever downloaded a single song could have been snagged by one of these suits, the truth is the recording industry didn't target anyone who merely downloaded music. Nor did it sue anyone who downloaded music and then shared that music among friends and family. No, those who had to swallow subpoenas - and write checks for thousands of dollars, in some cases - downloaded more than a thousand purloined files and made their stashes available to any and all comers over the 'Net.

That's not "sharing." That's distributing stolen goods, even if the distributor isn't receiving any money in return and even if the distributor is in junior high school or a member of AARP.

Might the music industry soon go after those who simply download a single song without paying? The trade group calling the shots here, the much-reviled Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), obviously is hoping a lot of music fans decide not to bet against such an escalation. However, my money says even the well-heeled, take-no-prisoners RIAA can hire only so many lawyers . . . and they'll be plenty busy going after the mid-level traffickers.

(By the way, I read that people who download "free" music without "sharing" are known as "leeches" in the music-stealing subculture, even though you might think those who live in glass houses wouldn't throw MP3 players.)

What's at stake here in the long term hasn't changed: It's nothing less than the future of intellectual property rights in the digital age, whether we're talking about recorded music, software, television programs or the collection of words you're reading at this moment.

In the short term, the music industry will do what it must to stop the pillaging.

"The industry has to increase the price of illegal file-sharing and make it more attractive to download music legally or purchase CDs," Hal Varian, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Times. "That is the economic gap the industry is trying to close."

That gap is closing from both ends, according to most accounts. Licensed music-download sites are multiplying and getting better at the same time the RIAA is cracking heads among the "swappers."

The industry also is offering an out for those who fear they might be next up for a subpoena: an amnesty program.

Takers ought to be lined up around the block.

Singing a different tune? Direct all irrelevant attacks on the business acumen of record companies and other rationalizations for stealing to buzz@nww.com.

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