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A declaration of war ... or cannibalism

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 25, 2003
(Issue 2130, The Talking Toaster)

It's not yet clear whether the latest salvo from the Recording Industry Association of America is an escalation of the war against online piracy or the beginning of the end of the entertainment industry as we know it.

Whichever it turns out to be, the decision to launch a public series of lawsuits against those who trade in online music is unnecessarily risky for the RIAA and its members.

The RIAA announced in late June that it would begin trying to identify individuals with large numbers of songs available for others to download – and sue them under federal copyright law.

In an interview with the Associated Press, RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss said, "We are committed to communicating the message that offering copyrighted music online is illegal. It hurts artists, songwriters and everyone else who brings music to the public, and we will hold those who engage in this activity accountable."


But every independent study on the buying habits of those who engage in online music trading has shown that they also purchase more music on average than the population as a whole.

In other words, online music swappers are the music industry's best customers.

The response

Interestingly, once the RIAA announced it would start filing lawsuits against those it could identify as offering free music for download over various peer-to-peer network protocols, several new efforts were announced that could make the RIAA's new efforts more difficult, if not impossible.

Filetopia ( is working on a new key-encryption system that would mask the IP addresses of all computers using its protocol. In other words, even if the RIAA successfully convinced a court to order Filetopia to turn over the names and/or locations of those using its network, Filetopia would be unable to comply – because they wouldn't know.

Interestingly, Filetopia offers many services besides file sharing – chat, bulletin boards, instant messaging – meaning that a recent court decision that allows for new technology that has legal purposes will likely shield them from the RIAA's wrath.

Another service promising anonymity in file sharing is Blubster ( However, like Napster, it's focused strictly on music sharing – meaning Blubster is probably more susceptible to a legal challenge from the RIAA than Filetopia is.

The upshot

Regardless of whether the RIAA sues Filetopia, Blubster, both or neither, the fact is that file sharing is here to stay.

Which means that the member corporations of the RIAA – music labels like Sony and Capitol and Virgin-EMI and BMG – are going to have to come up with new business models in order to succeed.

Merely filing lawsuits isn't going to make the new technology, nor the public acceptance of it, go away.

Whether it's high-quality packaging with photos and bios, more competitive pricing (many popular CDs now sell for $20 and up), or new technology of their own (the new five-channel audio DVDs, for instance), the music industry has to come up with reasons to make people want to spend their money on new music.

Even if you do manage to squelch online music piracy through fear, that's not going to motivate customers – many, if not most, of whom have shared music at one point or another – to go buy new CDs or legal downloads.

It may, however, convince them that they don't need music in their lives as much as they thought they did.

First, apologize for 'Yentl'

In other online news, noted foreign affairs expert and halfwit celebrity Barbra Streisand has sued the publisher of a coastal watchdog website for supposedly violating her privacy by publishing overhead photographs of her Malibu property.

The site,, is run by the California Coastal Records Project, which seeks to protect public access to coastal areas. While in California it's impossible to purchase a beach itself, the rich can and do buy property adjacent to the coast – and then try to stymie the public's ability to reach the waterline.

As part of its mission to safeguard the public's right to open, unfettered beach access (protected by the state constitution), the site includes aerial photos of much of the state's beaches – apparently including Streisand's tony digs.

Streisand sued the site, and its host provider, for $10 million for invasion of privacy.

Given how frequently and often Streisand insets herself into the public sphere (opining on the president's conduct of foreign affairs, for instance), she's going to have a hard time arguing that she's covered by a legal principal known as "limited public figure." Many actors could claim this protection, arguing that while their livelihood makes them a public figure, outside of that sphere they are no different than any other private citizen.

It's an important distinction, because if someone is judged to be a full public figure, their recourse to sue for things like defamation and invasion of privacy is notably reduced, as the courts have held that public figures, by nature of the fact that they have voluntarily shed their privacy, are thus liable to a higher level of scrutiny than the rest of us.

The owner of the site has filed a countersuit against Streisand under a California law that protects activists from groundless lawsuits intended to intimidate them into silence.

The hearing on that claim is set for July 14 (after this is written), and it will be interesting to see what the court finds.