Nothing Better To Do Than Sue

In perhaps the worst corporate blunder since the introduction of New Coke, the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA) has filed 493 more lawsuits in a vain attempt to stop the scourge of downloadi

In perhaps the worst corporate blunder since the introduction of New Coke, the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA) has filed 493 more lawsuits in a vain attempt to stop the scourge of downloading. The RIAA previously settled more than 400 copyright infringement lawsuits with downloaders for about $3,000 each.

The filing of these new lawsuits is evidence that the previous 400 cases have not stopped or effectively diminished downloading. Since the practice is still rampant, and album sales are up nearly 10% this year over last year, this would seem to deflate the argument that the industry is being destroyed by downloading.

Conversely, I propose that legal downloading, and not these lawsuits, have helped discourage illegal downloading as well as stimulate sales growth. Clearly, Apple's iTunes and most of the other prominent legal download services either did not exist a year ago, or did not have the A-list content that they now offer.

However, you'll never hear a positive thing about downloading from the RIAA. More troubling than the erroneous spinning, the record industry fails to embrace the modern world and continues to misperceive and execute poorly by:

1) Giving away money. Major record companies could have set up their own downloading services but failed to do so, and instead sponsored Apple's service and gave Apple several million dollars last year alone. The major labels could have monetized their dormant catalogs and therefore turned wasting assets into profit centers, but they wasted this corporate opportunity.

2) Conservatively embracing old-school ideology. The major record companies still think of themselves as "record" companies, or companies that sell recorded music in a particular storage medium (currently, CDs). Instead, the labels should fashion themselves as companies that deliver music, via a storage medium, download, ringtone, satellite or other media. The record companies are still desperately clinging to the CD, a product with a lifespan destined to be shorter than that of the vinyl LP.

3) Demonstrating an over inflated sense of self-importance. In this modern age, it is easier than ever for artists to reach an audience directly. However, the major record companies still act as though they are the only route to the consumer. They demonstrate this arrogance by failing to pay the artists their share of the recoveries from the aforementioned RIAA lawsuits (has any artist seen a dime of the more than $1 million that has been collected?), through consistent accounting chicanery, and by conservatively reacting to marketplace successes with imitation, rather than innovation.

4) Failing to embrace its target audience. Sure, there are always outlaws who will illegally steal music that is available for free. But there are also voracious music lovers out there who are not served by radio or by major record companies, and so they look to download services to sample new music. Sadly, because of a lack of funded studies, there is no data to show how many people who download a song (illegally or otherwise) later buy the album, so it is impossible to calculate how many sales are gained from downloading -- although the RIAA assumes that every download is a lost sale.

Sure, illegal downloading should be curtailed, if not eliminated, but the RIAA lawsuits remind me of previous misplaced lawsuits, such as when the record companies sued the nascent radio networks to force them to stop playing records, and when Universal Films sued Sony to stop the Betamax video recorder.

Hey, record industry: Start swimming, or you'll sink like a stone. For, as a wise man once said, "The times they are a-changin'."

Michael B. Ackerman is an entertainment lawyer and lifelong music consumer in Los Angeles who has never downloaded a track, legally or illegally.