Every week, each of the cluster deans post a “top ten list” of students within his or her cluster who have the highest bandwidth (typically from the downloading of music files from the likes of KaZaA) for that week. These students then face disciplinary actions of a dean’s rep, censure, or a week without the use of the Internet. Harsh punishment? It could be a lot worse. They could be sued–like the 261 Americans last Monday. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is once again seeking legal action against the file swapping of copyrighted music over the Internet. However, this time its targets are the consumers. According to RIAA President Cary Sherman, these 261 individuals suffering lawsuits were not selected randomly out of the millions that participate in the illegal action of downloading and uploading copyrighted music files for free; these individuals possessed an average of 1,000-plus copyrighted works. Under federal copyright law, damages for the infringement of copyrighted works range from $750 to $150,000 per work infringed, or in this case, per song downloaded. And Sherman warned in a conference call to reporters that these cases are only the first of “subsequent waves of litigation.” With that warning, the RIAA also supplied a way to seek amnesty. Individuals who are not currently under investigation are able to sign an affidavit pledging the halt of illegal downloading and the deletion of all existing copyrighted songs from their computers; only then does the RIAA promise not to sue. While it may sound like a safe way out of the frightening possibility of paying thousands of dollars, the RIAA leaves one thing out: the affidavit does not protect you from any other organization than itself, meaning the admission of guilt could lead to lawsuits from record labels and companies close to the RIAA or even criminal prosecution under the No Electronic Theft Act, under which punishments can include jail time. Yes, copyright laws are being violated now more than ever, especially in a time where KaZaA inhabits millions of American households, not to mention just about every dorm room on campus. And while it is understandable for the music industry and the RIAA to be upset, filing lawsuits against individuals will not increase their sales. It does not seem to be a good idea to sue your customer. As Wendy Seltzer, staff attorney of Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization whose mission statement calls for the “defending freedom in the digital world” posted on the EFF website, “More lawsuits is not the answer. Does anyone think that suing 60 million American file-sharers is going to motivate them to buy more CD’s?” She then suggests file sharing networks as a solution, saying that they “represent the greatest library of music in history, and music fans would be happy to pay for access to it, if only the recording industry would let them.” Or they could always just lower their prices. Currently, when we pay for a CD, we are paying not only the artist, but every middleman that touches the finishing product. This results in a substantially jacked up price. Andy Kessler recalled in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “The Music Industry Needs Hackers, Not Lawyers,” that 15 years ago, the software industry had the similar problem of piracy that the music industry faces today. Basic programs such as Microsoft Word or Excel cost hundreds of dollars, a price that inspired hackers to find other ways of obtaining the programs (i.e. by copying them illegally). When Borland’s Quattro Pro spreadsheet program reduced its price to under $100, Kessler wrote, “people bought it instead of copying it. Sales went up. Economists call this elasticity.” The RIAA needs to stop worrying its costumers with lawsuits and further threats. The music industry should learn from software by lowering its prices and forego attempts at instilling fear. Besides, the top ten list is enough to worry about.
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