For many Americans, it was an early Christmas present.
Friday, the Recording Industry Association of America announced it is ending its five-year campaign of suing people who share music via the Internet.
The RIAA declared victory, but to anyone reading between the lines, the triumphant bluster seemed a lot more like an admission of defeat. Although the RIAA claimed its lawsuits were necessary to save the music industry, no data indicates the suits had any impact on people’s behavior.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the RIAA initiated legal proceedings against 35,000 people — ranging from college students to grandmothers — during its war on music piracy. That number, however, was a just small fraction of the 19 percent of Internet users estimated to have shared music via peer-to-peer networks. So, unsurprisingly, fear of being sued wasn’t much of a deterrent. You might as well worry about being struck by lightning. From 2003 to 2007, that 19 percent figure remained virtually constant, and the number of songs downloaded actually increased.
Most of the RIAA’s targets settled out of court, and, ultimately, the RIAA spent more on legal fees than it recovered from shaking down defendants.
Yet, the RIAA’s president, Cary Sherman, claims the suits were a success. In an interview with CNET.com, he points to the spectacular growth of authorized downloads from for-profit sites like iTunes. But all that proves is that a lot of consumers are willing to pay for digital music — if, of course, the big music companies are willing to offer it.
During most of the past decade, the music industry hurt itself by not selling music downloads. Instead, the RIAA sued Web sites like Napster to prevent people from sharing songs. Then, when peer-to-peer software made it possible for computer users to share music with each other directly, without needing centralized hubs like Napster, the RIAA went after individuals.
When that didn’t work, the music companies finally, grudgingly, started entering into agreements to sell music downloads online, first through iTunes and, later, through sites like Amazon.com and MySpace. But by then, many of that pesky 19 percent were already used to not paying for music. And the music industry had only itself to blame.
Still, selling music downloads has become big business, even as sales of compact discs continue to fall. Who wants a bunch of CDs littering the house when you can store thousands of songs on a computer or iPod?
According to NPD Group, paid music downloads rose 29 percent in the third quarter of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, with iTunes and Amazon gaining 2.8 million music buyers, or about 15 percent of Internet users, CNET reported. Two major music labels, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, reported strong gains in digital sales, with Warner posting a 27 percent increase in the third quarter. Universal reported that its digital sales more than made up for the continued decline in CD sales.
Not coincidentally, as the music industry finally began offering legal downloads, the number of people illegally downloading music finally started to creep lower in 2008, falling to 14 percent, according to NPD.
Does that look like the result of the RIAA’s lawsuits, or the result of the RIAA’s members finally getting around to offering a legal alternative? Consumers aren’t greedy, and they want their favorite music artists to make money, even if that also means giving money to the music labels that wanted to sue them.
Nevertheless, the RIAA says it still plans to send warning letters to Internet service providers when it discovers computer users who are major copyright violators. The RIAA wants ISPs to limit or block Internet access for repeat offenders. But I have to wonder, is an ISP more likely to heed the RIAA or its own paying customers?
Somehow, I doubt the RIAA’s new strategy will be any more successful than its old one. And with legal downloads becoming easier to get, I also doubt it will matter much either way.