In launching an armada of lawsuits against on-line music piracy, the recording industry may well alienate the young consumers it seeks to attract.
The Recording Industry Association of America contends that computer file swapping costs musical artists and associated workers $700 million a year.
The trade group points out that 300 million fewer albums were shipped from 1999 to 2002. Meanwhile, in July alone, an estimated 400 million music files were shared free via the Internet.
So the RIAA went to court the other day to take bold legal action, filing lawsuits against an initial group of 261 people whose Internet address was used to download music without paying for it.
Downloaders are overwhelmingly young people. One survey indicated that about half of all those aged 12 to 22 who have Internet access have downloaded music from file-sharing networks.
The litigation, charging copyright infringement, supposedly was aimed at the most active online pirates.
But it also snared some unsuspecting culprits, like a 12-year-old girl from New York City who likes TV themes.
And a Redwood City, Calif., man whose teenagers used the family computer to download tunes and burn them onto a compact disc, as millions of young people have become accustomed to doing over the past several years.
This is the modern equivalent of the 30-year-old practice of letting the kids copy a new LP record on tape and pass it around.
Unfortunately, the former junkyard operator faces damages of up to $150,000 per swapped song. If found liable in court, some defendants could end up owing $750,000 to $150 million each.
The RIAA, which subpoenaed 1,500 Internet service providers to get the identities of downloaders, also has settled with several song-sharers for $3,000 apiece and has an amnesty program for those who confess their transgressions.
The lawsuits may be an effective tool of intimidation, but blackjacking potential customers legally won't guarantee that the recording business will prosper.
In fact, analysts cite other factors besides file-swapping for the music industry's downturn, like the poor economy in general, competition for consumers' dollars from DVD movies and video games, a lack of exciting musical trends, and less money being put into finding new artists by the record companies themselves.
What the industry needs to do is to make it more attractive for downloaders to get music files (and pay for them) legally, as Apple Computer has done with 99-cent tracks in its successful iTunesservice.
Also, it's long been obvious that CDs, at $16.98 to $18.98 each, are overpriced. Mercifully for music lovers, there has been some progress on that front as a major company, Universal Music Group, has announced a cut that should put prices at about $12.98.
In addition, the recording industry appears to be running against an unstoppable tide by trying to reverse the culture of “free stuff” that has made the Internet so popular.
As CDs and DVDs go the way of the 8-track tape, this would be the equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the technological tube.
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