Record industry declares all-out war on downloaders

NEW YORK - In an era when most businesses understand the importance of customer service, it is refreshing to find an industry that is prepared to reject conventional wisdom.

That is why contrarians everywhere are surely celebrating the Recording Industry Association of America's declaration of all-out war on its customers.

The 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 is a "psyops" element to the campaign too, in the form of an "amnesty" offer that aims to take advantage of the nervous and naïve. The so-called "clean slate" programme promises that the RIAA will not pursue legal action against people who send a notarised affidavit declaring that 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 doesn't protect against lawsuits from individual labels or songwriters.

I am not going to pretend that intellectual property isn't important, or that artists and corporations don't have the right to defend it, but why is the recording industry apparently alone in its inability to satisfy its customers' demands without resorting to litigation? You don't see book publishers suing libraries, which share their intellectual property with hundreds of non-paying customers every day.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this heavy-handed approach is alienating customers even further. A recent poll by the Pew Internet Project found that 71% of file-sharers do not 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 is headquartered in Palestine, beyond the scope of the RIAA's subpoena powers.

It may already be too late, but perhaps it is time for the industry to start listening to its customer base, and to rethink its approach to pricing (CDs are outrageously expensive), packaging (why do I have to buy 14 lousy songs to listen to one good one?) and PR.

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