You may have heard about a “landmark” copyright violation case that was decided in Minnesota last week. Out of thousands of potential cases brought against people by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for illegally sharing music over the internet, only one has gone to trial. Jammie Thomas, a single mother from Brainerd, MN, had the chance to settle for less than $5,000 in 2005, but figured the RIAA would never follow through with the suit.
She was wrong. And now, she has been found guilty of sharing files and is subject to a $222,000 judgement. Also, she is subject to hard labor for sharing a Richard Marx song, because international law requires that people make Richard Marx less available, not more. Poor Jammie Thomas. I admire her moxie in not wanting to get pushed around, but when your legal defense is that somebody hijacked your computer for the sole purpose of sharing 9 songs, but you can’t find anybody to testify that such a thing actually happened or was possible, it’s likely you should have settled when you had the chance. Or, say, retained a better lawyer.
Look, I really dislike the RIAA. I think record companies have been sticking it to music artists and the music-buying public for a long, long time. But copyright law is important, and the fact that many, many people violate that law doesn’t mean that the law should simply be ignored. We have to figure out a way to make sure artists get fair value for their art. Note, that doesn’t necessarily have a damned thing to do with whether record labels get anything.
Which brings up Radiohead. As you may have heard, Radiohead is no longer bound to their contract with EMI, and as a result are releasing their new In Rainbows album direct to fans, who can order either a physical box set or just the download. And, you can choose to pay whatever you want (minimum of about $1). I decided it was worth about $9 to me to get the download, and all of that money will go direct to Radiohead, as opposed to a record label who “promotes” the band and handles distribution. For a great summary of Radiohead’s plan, as well as a nice pie-chart showing how bogus the old RIAA model was, go here.
I have to say I’ve come around quite a bit on ripping music without paying for it. I will still rip a record from someone, usually in exchange for things they’ve ripped from me, but now that’s a small part of my music consumption, and most of what I listen to I pay for, either through eMusic, iTunes, direct from artists, or (wow!) even old-fashioned record stores. I think ripping is always going to be around, and to a certain extent I think that’s OK. That’s how word-of-mouth has built since the days of the cassette tape. But I don’t think it’s justifiable to only take from artists without also paying them (at least some of them), and I think that’s something that our generation and the younger one is going to have to come to grips with. Just because something can be had for free doesn’t mean it should be.
Not every band can do what Radiohead is doing. Most can’t, really, because Radiohead is so big and has such a loyal (and wired) fanbase. But the model they are using is important. If people had the choice of paying $5 direct to the band, knowing the band is getting 100% of that $5, instead of 15% of the price of a $15 CD, I bet a lot of people who are ripping music today would be more willing to pay the money.
Of course, I’m sure there are a lot of douchebags out there who are going to the Radiohead In Rainbows website and paying their minimum $1, or even worse, will still insist on ripping it from someplace for free. If you plan to be one of those people, think for a moment about what art is, and what art ought to be worth to you.