PAUL HOLMES: If the RIAA wants to win in the long run, suing its customers directly is a losing proposition

In an era when most businesses understand the importance of customer service and thought leaders invest heavily in customer loyalty, it's refreshing to find at least one industry that's prepared to reject conventional wisdom. That's why contrarians everywhere are surely celebrating the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) decision to declare all-out war on its customers.

In an era when most businesses understand the importance of customer service and thought leaders invest heavily in customer loyalty, it's refreshing to find at least one industry that's prepared to reject conventional wisdom. That's why contrarians everywhere are surely celebrating the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) decision to declare all-out war on its customers.

The industry has been gearing up for this assault for months, waging a propaganda campaign almost as intensive as the one that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq - and almost as misleading. (It's no coincidence that the RIAA recently tried to recruit Torie Clarke, who was Donald Rumsfeld's spokeswomen during that war.)

The shock-and-awe offensive began with the filing of 261 copyright lawsuits against internet users who swap files online. In the past, the industry has limited itself to lawsuits against the operators of file-swapping services, such as Napster, but this suit focused on customers, individuals who have used the Kazaa network to download songs.

There was a psy-ops element to the campaign too, in the form of an "amnesty" offer that aims to take advantage of the nervous and naive. The "Clean Slate" program promises that the RIAA won't pursue legal action against people who send a notarized affidavit stating they have wiped all copyrighted materials from their disk drives. But the amnesty doesn't apply if the RIAA has already subpoenaed your ISP for your information without your knowledge, and it does not protect against lawsuits from individual labels or songwriters.

Intellectual property is important, and artists (and even huge corporate behemoths) have the right to defend it. But why is the recording industry apparently alone in its inability to find a way to satisfy its customers' demands without resorting to litigation? You don't see book publishers suing libraries, who share their intellectual property with hundreds of non-paying customers every day.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest this heavy-handed approach is alienating customers even further. A recent poll by the Pew Internet Project found that 71% of file-sharers don't care about copyright, and 57% of their parents share that apathy. Moreover, the RIAA is fighting a losing war against the technology: the latest service, Earth Station 5, uses identity-masking tricks to prevent companies from tracking who is downloading what, and it's headquartered in Palestine, beyond the scope of the RIAA's subpoena powers.

It may already be too late, but perhaps the industry should start listening to its customer base, and rethink its approach to pricing (CDs are outrageously expensive), packaging (why must I buy 14 lousy tracks to listen to one good song?), and PR.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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