RIAA suffers PR fallout as suit lands on front pages

WASHINGTON: The recording industry's lawsuits against online music swappers was front-page news last week, with much of the coverage calling the effort a PR debacle.

WASHINGTON: The recording industry's lawsuits against online music swappers was front-page news last week, with much of the coverage calling the effort a PR debacle.

The lawsuits, filed by the member companies of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), accuse hundreds of people of copyright infringement for sharing music files on the internet. The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for those digital-music swappers who pledge to stop sharing music illegally.

As of late last week, one of the 261 lawsuits had been settled, but even that came with a PR price. Twelve-year-old Brianna LaHara's mother agreed to pay $2,000 to make the legal problems go away, but not before the honor-roll defendant's plight was told in sympathetic news accounts across the country. The file-sharing companies used this as a PR platform by offering to pay the settlement, while calling the plaintiff a greedy bully.

The RIAA communications office, however, was steeled for the backlash. The three-person team has been working with Sitrick & Company on piracy issues for about a year.

"We knew that there would be some PR fallout. We also know that when you're fishing with a net you're going to catch a few dolphins," said Amy Weiss, SVP of communications for the RIAA. "But we know this is the right thing to do."

Weiss pointed to some victories in the media, such as last Wednesday's front-page New York Times story about parents talking to kids about the implications of downloading. She called that "a home run."

"It's about deterrent messages that are getting out there," she said. "We're not looking to make money or be vindictive."

Money, to be sure, is at the root of piracy issues that threaten industries built on providing creative content. Rampant technological advances have called into question longstanding business models and opened the door for new ones, such as those of peer-to-peer file-sharing companies such as Kazaa and Grokster.

Grokster president Wayne Rosso said he has honed a very straightforward communications plan to deal with the lawsuit. "We figured out a long time ago that every time Grokster is mentioned in the media, we get more downloads," he said. "The context doesn't matter. In fact, the worse the context, the better it is for us."

Is he concerned that the strategy of deterrence will affect his business? "They can't win," he said. "Technology always wins. Always."

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