Last September, 17-year-old Ben Albert was summoned to the dean's office at the University of Georgia, where he was a freshman biology major. Just a few days earlier, he had downloaded a movie, Austin Powers in Goldmember, off Kazaa, currently the world's most popular file-sharing software. Available free to anyone with a PC and an Internet connection, Kazaa allows users to swap movies, music and more with reckless abandon. At any given time, up to 5 million people might be trading files through Kazaa.
In downloading Goldmember, Albert knew what he was doing was technically illegal. But like the 60 million or so other Americans who share movies and music online, he felt comfortable playing the percentages. Somehow, though, the Motion Picture Association of America traced the download to the UGA campus. It dashed off a sternly worded letter, which ended up in the office of Kim Ellis, UGA's associate dean of student affairs.
Ellis had seen letters like these before. Every few months, the school gets another spurt, if not from Hollywood, then from the Recording Industry Association of America, demanding that the administration crack down on students who traffic in copyrighted material. Ellis laid out Albert's options: He could 'fess up, or he could face a campus judicial review. "I figured I'd just admit my guilt," says Albert, who is now 18. "I did it."
For his sins, Albert found himself on a six-month behavioral probation. He also had to write a paper on copyright law. His friends, meanwhile, were shocked -- not that he'd downloaded a movie, of course, but that he'd actually been caught. After all, downloading has become as common to the 21st-century college student as getting baked was to their parents. Which is to say, it's still technically illegal, no matter how many people are doing it.
"When it comes to computers and technology, it's hard for people to understand the things they can do with one or two keystrokes, until you bring it into a real-world situation versus a virtual-world situation," Ellis says. "Do you walk into a Blockbuster and walk out with a movie without paying? That's stealing that movie."
Ever since Napster first brought file-sharing to the masses in 2000, the recording industry has been trying to make the same argument to people like Albert, appealing to their sense of fair play, of capitalistic ethics, of quid pro quo. To assure us that it's not just their own asses they're worried about, record execs trot out the artists themselves, who conjure up a world where musicians, made destitute by their own cheating fans, go back to pumping gas and waitressing at biker bars. No surprise that this PR campaign has been less than effective.
"Music stars who make $50 million are complaining they don't make enough money," Albert says. "The regular person is like, 'Are you kidding me?' It makes you just want to download and make them mad."
Well, Ben, it's worked. In the last month, the RIAA has ramped up its assault on illegal file-sharing, bringing the battle right to the consumers. Emboldened by a recent court decision that went its way, the RIAA is forcing Internet service providers across America to hand over the names of hundreds of clients who download music online. So far, upwards of a thousand subpoenas have gone out. They will serve as the basis for lawsuits, which, by law, can demand up to $150,000 per pirated song. The first lawsuits could be filed as early as August. The entertainment industry even has its own stooge on Capitol Hill, in the person of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who, in the past year, has introduced legislation that would involve the FBI in investigating downloading, that would permit copyright holders to sabotage file-sharing networks, and that would even send downloaders to jail. (On what is surely an unrelated note, the Honorable Berman's 2002 re-election campaign was nudged along by more than $220,000 from the entertainment industry.)
Yes, it takes a certain arrogance -- some may even say rank stupidity --- to sue the very people who otherwise might be your customers. Another industry might have seen a revolutionary technology like file-sharing as a means to cultivate new customers, to broaden their client base, to find new ways to deliver their product to more people. Instead, the RIAA has resisted the technology, pouting about thieving fans and proceeding full-steam ahead with a tactic that even some record labels say is ill-advised.
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