“Once in a while maybe you will feel the urge/ To break international copyright law/ By downloading MP3s from file-sharing sites,” sings Weird Al Yankovic. However, he warns, “the guilt would drive you mad/ And the shame would leave a permanent scar/ ‘Cause you start out stealing songs and then you’re robbing liquor stores/ And sellin’ crack and runnin’ over school kids with your car.”
These lines come from Yankovic’s satirical record, Don’t Download This Song; he goes on to lament how he will now be rendered unable to afford any more “diamond studded swimming pools”. He put this song up on his website for free download.
While Yankovic in his song represents a hyperbolic idea of a musician’s attitudes towards file-sharing, hyperbole seems to be the style on this particular topic. Last week Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a mum of four from Minnesota in the US, was ordered to pay $1.9 million in the first file-sharing case to make it to trial in the country. If we take the value of an MP3 as the standard iTunes price, which in America is 99¢, this equates to 1,919,192 songs. So how many songs did Thomas-Rasset get accused of sharing? Twenty-four. And I know, I know, these songs are digital so they would be duplicated many more times, but that this particular could be fined such an exorbitant price when I personally know of many people who have shared thousands of times this number of songs – most people targeted by record companies settle for around £1,500.
It seems Thomas-Rasset’s extreme fine may be largely due to her unwillingness to arrange a settlement, as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had indicated that it was happy to do, and legally it seems that the accusation of copyright breach is perfectly legitimate. Nonetheless, if the RIAA was seeking to make an example of her then they have failed for two reasons: firstly, they have simply come out seeming heartless as they bankrupt a family; secondly, the knowledge that despite how widespread file-sharing is now this is the first case to make it to trial is hardly going to have others who engage in it shaking in their boots.
Now I am no advocate of file-sharing – I think that musicians have a right to protect their intellectual and creative material. However it is not musicians who bring this sort of case (with some notable exceptions, such as Metallica’s infamous battle against Napster) but rather the record companies who already exploit the creative material of artists in their own special way. With their focus on profit maximisation over talent development, it is these companies who are doing far more damage on their own to the industry than all of the file-sharers in the world. In fact, if the companies lowered the price of a record, would it even be necessary for people to acquire them for free?
I am sympathetic towards the idea that a musician should be able to maintain control of their own music, and when it is a musician who makes a complaint I take it a lot more seriously, such as when Andy McKee complained to users of torrents, commenting that ‘we’re not all Metallica’. Nevertheless most musicians were never in control of their music in the first place due to the exploitative corporations for whom they work – when I see music producers on Cribs, I find it difficult to believe that the industry is in trouble.