Smells like teen spirit: Music giants stop suing downloaders...but sign on Big Brother

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been waging an ongoing war against small-time pirates for half a decade now. By initiating large numbers of lawsuits, even against people who have illegally downloaded 10, 20, 30 copyrighted songs, the RIAA had essentially terrorized scofflaws into spending money on the big labels.

All in all, about 35,000 people got sued, but the RIAA never won a single case. Most were settled for an average of $3,500 because small-time users couldn't afford the mountain of legal expenses that the RIAA would send tumbling upon them. Downloading copies of songs through file-sharing software is outside the law, even if you just happen to be "trying out" some music and, conveniently, never get around to buying your legal copy. Still, just before the Christmas break, the RIAA announced it would end its campaign against mom-and-pop pirates.

The practice of suing individual downloaders, many impoverished students, was intended to make the world aware of of the damage of illegal downloading, but it quickly backfired and became a public relations nightmare for the music industry. Take the mentally ill 19-year-old girl who lost an $8,000 judgment against her because she was too sick to show up at court. Or the 65-year-old Massachusetts grandmother accused of downloading hi-hop tunes. (The RIAA dropped that one, but not before Granny totally lost her street cred.)

But did the RIAA halt the lawsuits because they made the industry look petty and unreasonable or because it never scored in front of a judge? Neither. The lawsuits were simply costing more money than they were bringing in. That's right -- -this sue-the-little-guy policy ended up costing the ailing recording industry even more money.

When CDs first came out as a major consumer product in the mid-'80s, they were terribly expensive. But we were told that once the manufacturing plants were built and the technology had settled, the price would come down to somewhere near what we were paying for vinyl and cassettes. Needless to say, it never really did, and these days, when I walk into a Virgin Megastore, non-sale CDs cost about $19 or $20, or twice what it costs me to get the same material online. Naturally, people take the extra step and pirate while they're on their computers.

But instead of responding to the practice like a professor of Economics 101 might predict -- lower the price if sales plummet -- the music industry chose the litigation path. And it's still on a similar path, except from now on, it will pour its money into "working with" Internet service providers to make sure downloaders are given a few warnings before they are denied service.

The new tactic relies on music industry spies to monitor your peer-to-peer activities and report them to your ISP. In turn, your ISP may be one of those that has agreed to respond by choking off your Internet access.

It's clever, really. Now, users like you and me will turn their annoyance away from the music biggies and toward service providers for playing ball and allowing a third party to monitor our private activities. The new scheme is also worrying, because it operates just as far outside the law as individual pirates have. Now, the music industry and your ISP are judge and jury, and the RIAA will put its considerable resources to work in convincing your web provider to do you the favor of shutting off your access in helping you obey the law.

The instant workaround for privacy advocates (and, yes, for illegal downloaders, too) is to pick an ISP that is well outside the corporate fold, because boutique providers are less likely to subscribe to this sort of freelance policing. That might mean abandoning web access that comes as part of a cable TV or phone package. A few ISPs also furnish web access that scrubs an identifiable IP address to make you anonymous to corporate snoopers.

For those of you who didn't pay for that bootlegged file of Britney Spears' "Womanizer," the negative karma for you has always been moral (and aesthetic), but for now, the penalty won't be financial, too.

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