The RIAA plays boogeyman

The recording industry continues to target illegal music downloading at college campuses.

Published May 14, 2007 3:35PM (EDT)

You've got to hand it to the Recording Industry Association of America; it just keeps finding new ways to make itself look bad. A recent Associated Press article about a spate of legal threats made against college students provides a fresh example of how the recording industry is still failing to, you know, adjust to the realities of the digital age.

The article focuses on the situation at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where 61 students received letters from the RIAA threatening legal action for illegal music downloading. The letters, sent to students who'd used file-sharing programs like Ares, informed the recipients that as punishment for illegal downloading, they must either pay a fine (MasterCard, Visa and Discover are acceptable) or face a lawsuit. An RIAA spokeswoman quoted in the story says that the letters were sent in an effort "to send the message that [unauthorized downloading] is illegal, you can be caught, and there are consequences." Consequences indeed -- 17 UNL students have already been sued.

Even though the students were the ones behaving illegally, it's still the recording industry that kind of comes across looking like the bad guy. One UNL student had to take money out of his college fund to pay the settlement and says he'll now have to work three jobs to get by. Another student says she would've been up poop's creek without a paddle if her parents hadn't offered to help her financially. A university spokeswoman expressed concern that students would worry about being able to pay their tuition because of the expensive settlements. The RIAA's response? "It is important to send the message that this is illegal, you can be caught, and there are consequences," said spokeswoman Jenni Engebretsen.

The article also notes that money from the settlements is being used by the RIAA to fund educational programs in schools -- in some cases starting as early as the third grade -- designed to spread the word that file sharing can "have severe consequences." So for the RIAA, young people shouldn't be worried that file sharing is morally wrong, or unfair to artists, or, hell, a good way to get a virus on your computer, but that it might get them in trouble. It's a good strategy. Young people usually aren't very interested in doing things they're not supposed to do.

This college-targeting episode is yet another instance of the recording industry's almost comically quixotic efforts to combat file sharing. Rather than employing one Band-Aid solution after another (e.g., embedding CDs with DRM, or digital rights management, software to prevent copying, sending watermarked CDs to critics, suing college kids) maybe it's time to start thinking about alternative business models. I'm no businessman, but the deal EMI struck with metal-rockers Korn -- offering a larger than normal cash advance in return for a stake in the band's touring and merchandising revenues -- seems like a better response to changing industry conditions than playing digital boogeyman to college kids. Yet perhaps resorting to scare tactics is a logical step for an industry that has never exactly had the best interests of the consumer in mind. "My Humps," anyone?

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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