RIAA Under Fire; New Chief Found

The campaign by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to litigate music downloading out of existence has drawn the attention of legislators in the nation's capital.

On July 31, Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), chairman of the senate's subcommittee on investigations, began an inquiry into the trade group's mass launch of subpoenas against ordinary citizens, accusing them of piracy or complicity in the violation of copyrights. Under provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), violators could be fined anywhere from $750 to $150,000 per individual song downloaded from the Internet, or made available for others to download. The DMCA also enables aggrieved copyright holders to obtain the identities of alleged violators from Internet service providers.

Acknowledging that the RIAA has "every right to develop practical remedies for protecting its rights," Coleman stated that he was concerned that the group's crackdown "could potentially cause injury and harm to innocent people who may have simply been victims of circumstance or possess[ed] a lack of knowledge of the rules related to digital sharing of files." To date the RIAA has issued approximately 1000 subpoenas in an effort to discourage the widespread practice of sharing music via the Web. Calling the effort "excessive," Senator Coleman said, "In this country we don't cut off your arm or fingers for stealing."

The trade group has been the target of widespread criticism as a result of its anti-piracy campaign, primarily from music fans and civil libertarians—and now by an important member of the US Senate. Coleman described the RIAA's litigation campaign as "a shotgun approach" to dealing with copyright violations, and reported that he has asked the RIAA for copies of the subpoenas in order to determine that innocent people weren't getting caught in its net. The trade association said it would comply with Coleman's request.

Coleman began his inquiry the day after SBC Communications, Inc.'s SBC Internet Services challenged the legality of the RIAA subpoenas, as well as DMCA provisions that the company claims violate subscribers' privacy. Verizon, Inc.'s Internet division previously raised similar objections, but lost its case in a District of Columbia federal district court. Companies outside the music industry have begun seeking subscribers' identities in other probes of possible copyright violations, said SBC spokesman Joe Izbran. Some legal analysts said SBC's response was futile, since its objections had already been addressed in the Verizon case. Others adjudged it an appropriate move to protect the privacy of SBC's subscribers.

The RIAA's litigation campaign is likely to engender further resentment of the music industry. Most downloaders already have no respect for copyrights, according to a report issued the same day Coleman made his comments. According to a spring '03 telephone survey of 2515 American adults by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, two-thirds of Internet users who download music don't care if they are violating copyrights.

Completed before the RIAA launched its crackdown, the survey found that approximately 35 million Americans use file-sharing software. Among them, 72% of those in the 18–29 age range said they weren't concerned about copyrights and 61% of the 30–49-year-old category said they weren't either. Of the group identifying themselves as "full-time students," 82% said they weren't worried about copyright laws,. There was no significant difference in attitudes between men and women, or among people of various ethnicities, the study's authors noted. RIAA officials said they believed the Pew study was outdated, and that the legal blitz would change commonly held attitudes about copyrights.

In other RIAA news, the trade group has found a replacement for departing chairwoman and CEO Hilary Rosen, who announced her resignation early this year. On July 28, the RIAA announced that it had chosen prominent Republican lobbyist Mitch Bainwol to replace Rosen. A former chief of staff for Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Bainwol will assume his new position on September 1.

"Mitch's strong background and experience will be a real asset to the RIAA," said RIAA president and general counsel Cary Sherman. "Mitch brings to the RIAA the consummate insider's understanding of political nuance in Washington," said Warner Music Group CEO Roger Ames.

Rosen, a 17-year veteran of the music industry, began her new job as a commentator for CNBC on August 1.