But that’s been the story over the past several days. Google “RIAA” and “CD” in the search engine’s news section and you’ll find results with headlines like “RIAA Goes After ‘Personal Use’ Doctrine” (PC Magazine) or “We’re All Thieves To the RIAA” (Motley Fool), plus a multitude of blogs and Web postings denouncing the trade organization for suing some poor schlep in Arizona for taking the CDs he had purchased and ripping the tracks onto his hard drive.

Sure, it makes great copy. Especially to people who are already predisposed to hate the RIAA for whatever reasons. Like suing thousands of people for copyright infringement or trying to force technology companies into becoming copyright policemen.

But despite past actions by the RIAA, actions that could be interpreted as arrogant, pompous or even Machiavellian, the organization’s current lawsuit filed against Arizona resident Jeffrey Howell isn’t one of them. Despite the legal rhetoric RIAA lawyers have expoused at the trial, it’s simply another day in court for the RIAA. Just another day of suing someone for P2P music piracy.

So why are so many online publications and traditional print outlets claiming the RIAA is going after people for ripping CDs?

The answer lies in a December 30th posting on The Washington Post’s Web site by staff writer Marc Fisher titled “Download Uproar: Record Industry Goes After Personal Use,” in which Fisher wrote:

“In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music on his computer.”

Fisher also quotes a legal brief filed in the case by RIAA lawyer Ira Schwartz describing Howell’s digitized music files as “unauthorized copies.”

Then Fisher ties it all together by quoting from the RIAA’s Website.

“If you make unauthorized copies of copyrighted music recordings, you’re stealing,” reads the quote. “You’re breaking the law and you could be held legally liable for thousands of dollars in damages.”

Let’s break it down.

Even though the RIAA might some day actually try to get a judicial ruling declaring CD ripping illegal, that isn’t what the RIAA is claiming in its case against Howell. However, Howell has claimed that the music on his hard drive does come from CDs he legally owns. So, what’s the beef?

Like most of the infringement cases the RIAA has pursued over the past few years, the songs in question are tunes Howell placed in his P2P shared directory. It makes no difference whether those songs were downloaded from other P2P users or if those tunes were ripped from CDs or digitized using a cassette or vinyl LP as the source. The RIAA isn’t suing Howell for ripping songs. They’re suing Howell for allegedly placing the ripped tracks into a “shared” directory on his hard drive, thus making those songs available for downloading by other P2P users.

Then there’s the quote from the RIAA lawyer describing the ripped tracks as “unauthorized.” Fisher couples that with the RIAA Web site text that describes making “unauthorized copies” as “stealing.”

Two things here. Yes, the RIAA lawyer did call the tracks on Howell’s computer “unauthorized,” and yes, the RIAA calls “unauthorized” copies of copyrighted music “stealing.”

However, “unauthorized” isn’t exactly the same thing as “illegal.” In the eyes of the RIAA, ripping tracks from a CD is an unauthorized use, meaning the labels don’t endorse such an action. But it’s not illegal.

But the word “unauthorized” is a fun one to throw around. From the automobile industry’s standpoint, some backseat heavy breathing on a lover’s lane is probably not an authorized use of a vehicle. But that hardly makes such use illegal.

In Howell’s case, ripping the CDs may have been unauthorized, but the actions were not illegal. But placing those ripped tracks in a directory accessible by millions of P2P users, as Howell allegedly did, was when those “unauthorized” tracks crossed the threshold into the land of possible music piracy. And that is why the RIAA is suing him.

And that’s no different from all those other copyright infringement lawsuits the RIAA has filed against P2P users. It’s not about downloading. It’s about making copyrighted tracks available for others to download. It’s about illegal distribution of copyrighted works, regardless of where those tracks originated.

While any article demonizing the RIAA always gets a good deal of traction on the Web, the December 30th Post story was poised for greatness, if only because it was posted during one of the slowest, if not the slowest, news weeks of the year.

When something actually happens around the holidays, like a South Pacific tsunami occurring during Christmas, news organizations usually have to call their reporters back from vacations to provide proper coverage. The Washington Post article about the RIAA and CD ripping appeared five days after Christmas, two days before New Year’s Day. You’d have a hard time finding a slower news period than that.

So the story circulated. Blogs linked to it, other publications ran similar articles citing The Post as the source. And it wasn’t until after January 1, after news professionals returned from vacation and started looking into the matter, that the public finally learned that The Washington Post article wasn’t exactly on the level.

Gawker Media’s music blog Idolator, which in a posting titled “RIAA May Not Be As Painfully Dense As Washington Post Indicates,” quickly listed the fallacies in the original Post article, and quoted tech blog TechDirt for pointing out those fallacies.

One day after Idolator and TechDirt went after The Post, Cnet posted an item saying The Washington Post was sticking by its story “despite evidence it goofed.”

Furthermore, Cnet quotes the RIAA’s brief and how the organization used the word “unauthorized.” As it turns out, it’s quite a bit different than The Post’s article implies.

“Once [Howell] converted plaintiff’s recording into the compressed MP3 format and they are in his shared folder, they are no longer the authorized copies distributed by Plaintiff.”

The same Cnet article notes that Fisher defended his story, saying, “The bottom line is that there is a disconnect between RIAA’s publicly stated policy that making a personal copy of a CD is ok and the theory advanced by its lawyers that in fact, transferring music to your computer is an unauthorized act.”

Now, Fisher’s statement can be parsed in a number of different ways. The original story’s headline claimed the recording industry was going after “personal use,” and Fisher asserted that the RIAA “maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.”

As Cnet points out, several tech and music blogs that have no great love for the RIAA, like Idolater, Engadget and TechDirt, have posted articles defending the organization against the claims Fisher laid out in his Post article.

But regardless of what you read, the bottom line in this instance is, despite what Fisher reported in The Post, the RIAA is not going after people who rip tracks from CDs onto their own hard drives. At least, not yet.

But then, tomorrow is another day.