RIAA in Two-Front War Against Aimster, Songwriters

In 1984, George Orwell's chilling tale of life in a totalitarian society, good citizens are expected to master the art of "doublethink," the ability to embrace two contradictory ideas at the same time. As evidenced by legal actions undertaken by their organization in late May, executives of the Recording Industry Association of America would make excellent role models in an Orwellian state.

Emboldened by courtroom victories over Napster, the Internet's most notorious free music service, the RIAA began action against Aimster, a service with a similar operating model. On May 24, RIAA attorneys filed suit in federal court against Aimster on behalf of major record labels, with charges of copyright infringement similar to those successfully used against Napster. Aimster CEO Johnny Deep and two associated corporate entities, BuddyUSA and AbovePeer, are named as defendants in the suit.

The legal action is the latest escalation of a war of words that began with accusations by the RIAA that Aimster was in violation of copyright law. Requests that Aimster begin filtering and blocking copyrighted songs went unheeded, and in early April the RIAA sent a "cease and desist" letter to Aimster. Deep responded by filing his own suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of New York in Albany, seeking a declaratory judgment that his company was not infringing on copyrights. Deep insisted that for Aimster to interfere with private communications among its clients would amount to invasion of privacy, and possibly copyright violation. As of June 1, no ruling has been made in Deep's lawsuit nor in the RIAA action against Aimster.

Meanwhile, in collaboration with music website MP3.com (itself one of the music industry's former legal adversaries), the RIAA has been engaged in a prolonged effort to impose a moratorium on royalty payments for songs downloaded over the Internet. In November 2000, the two partners submitted a proposal to the US Copyright Office asking for a "safe harbor" approach to royalties for downloaded music. The plan would allow the Copyright Office to establish compulsory licenses for digital content, but would not establish a royalty rate. Music publishers and songwriters have asked the Copyright Office to reject the proposal on the grounds it would take away their rights to negotiate licenses on their own terms. "The record companies and their allies are seeking to minimize their obligation to pay—or to pay nothing at all—for the right to reproduce and distribute copyrighted musical works over the Internet," complained Edward Murphy, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association. The NMPA and the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) instead have requested that the Copyright Office create a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel which would then determine rates and terms for music sourced from online services. The RIAA has not commented on the NMPA/SGA request.

Despite the RIAA's high-minded talk about protecting copyrights, bottom-line considerations are at the heart of the Aimster lawsuit, as in the action against Napster. The RIAA is extremely aggressive about maintaining control of the distribution of its products, yet curiously reticent about securing adequate compensation for the creators of those products. The situation is part of a larger pattern of exploitation in which media conglomerates view themselves as being in the "intellectual property business" while categorizing writers, artists, photographers, and musicians—the people who make media businesses possible—as "content providers."

The music industry's legal wrangles have been only the most visible of several parallel developments, including grassroots efforts by writers and photographers to educate themselves about their own copyright concerns and to organize for just compensation from publishers. The issue of royalty payments for Internet distribution and other forms of digital media was a big point of contention during recent contract renewal talks between the film industry and the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriters' organization.

In 1999, the RIAA succeeded in having "works for hire" legislation approved by the US Congress by attaching it to the Satellite Home Viewer Act. The law defined a musical recording as a singular event that could be paid for once, without regard for the number of times the recording was performed (ie, number of copies sold) or the variety of formats in which it was reproduced. Little noticed by the general public until musicians howled in protest, the "works for hire" legislation was repealed by Bill Clinton in October 2000.