Obama Supports Infringement Fines

How does President Barack Obama’s administration feel about copyright laws? Let’s put it this way: The Recording Industry Association of America has nothing to worry about.

The Department of Justice recently weighed in on a couple of peer-to-peer file-sharing cases in Massachusetts, saying it supported damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 in such cases.

In a brief filed to support the constitutionality of current copyright laws, DoJ attorney Michelle Bennett wrote:

“The remedy of statutory damages for copyright infringement has been a cornerstone of our federal copyright law since 1790, and Congress acted reasonably in crafting the current incarnation of the statutory damages provision.”

Wired’s “Threat Level” blog says the brief should surprise no one since two top attorneys at the DoJ are former RIAA lawyers. For example, Donald Verrilli Jr. is the associate deputy attorney general who went after Grokster.

Verrilli also argued against a retrial for Jammie Thomas, the Minnesota woman who became the only person sued by the RIAA for P2P infringement to make it through a complete trial. In 2007 a jury found Thomas guilty and awarded the major labels $222,000 in damages. However, the judge in Thomas’ trial has since ordered a retrial, saying the theory of “making available” copyrighted works for downloading might not actually constitute infringement.

Tom Perrilli, the No. 2 man at Justice, once argued that Internet service providers should release customer information whenever the RIAA asks for it, even if the trade organization does not produce a subpoena with its request.

Yes, that’s right. Verrilli and Perrilli. At the DoJ. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Under normal circumstances, a letter from the Department of Justice to a court probably wouldn’t stir up a fuss, if only because the DoJ often comments on cases where constitutional issues might be argued. However, the RIAA’s strategy of suing users for offering copyrighted material via P2P networks has been slammed by more technology blogs than those supporting it, and the Department of Justice’s brief supporting high fines for copyright infringements was no exception.

“DoJ supports RIAA in Sony v. Tenenbaum three-ring circus,” was the headline on Ars Technica on March 23, while P2P Net ran with “Obama / Biden: tools of the RIAA?” and TwentyFourBit posted coverage titled “Obama Justice Department in the Bag for RIAA?”

The two trials DoJ filed the brief for – Capitol Records v. Noor Alaujun and Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Joel Tenenbaum – represent the last batch of the P2P lawsuits. The RIAA is replacing its strategy of suing individual users with one that calls for greater P2P participation in blocking suspected music pirates.

On the other hand, the trade organization may be tempted to rethink that decision now that it has the DoJ in its corner.


Free Music Ain’t Cheap

The demise of free music service SpiralFrog, which went dark on March 19, has record company execs and Internet entrepreneurs wondering if music-for-nothing will ever turn a profit.

The concept seems simple enough: users download as many songs as they want for free, but must return to the site and watch more ads if they want to keep the music playing.

Like subscription services offered by Napster and Rhapsody, digital rights management technology controls the number of times users can listen to songs. Stop watching ads and the songs cease playing.

It doesn’t look as if there were enough people watching ads at SpiralFrog to offset the amount of advance money the service paid Universal Music Group and EMI; an amount often reported to be over $1 million to each label.

Furthermore, the service was never able to complete deals with Sony and Warner Music Group, thus leaving out two of the four major labels.

Add that to SpiralFrog’s ever-growing debt – reported to be $34 million, according to CNET – and it becomes a little easier to understand why the service ceased functioning.

When ad-supported music services began appearing, it was thought the revenue from advertising would supplant revenues lost to illicit file-sharing. However, there are more factors in play than just exchanging 30 seconds of your time in return for listening to your favorite tune.

Control, for instance. While many music fans don’t really think about it, the amount of control a person has over music often defines whether the person actually owns the music or is just listening to a preview.

That’s how radio works. Chances are you’ve been introduced to more than a few personal favorites through radio airplay. However, as a listener, you neither control when the songs are played, or how often the tunes are aired. You want control? Buy the CD.

But subscription services and ad-supported “free” music sites operate on the pay-as-you-go plan where you get all the control you want, including how many times you can listen to a tune, in exchange for a monthly fee at subscription sites, or watching more ads at free music sites.

Either way, you’re not in complete control because the sites can shut off the music. Of course, that goes without saying if you miss a monthly payment or fail to keep up on your advertising viewing, but the length of time the music continues to play is also dependent on companies staying in business, and/or supporting the DRM.

For example, Microsoft accrued lots of bad press last year when it said it would no longer operate the DRM servers that allow songs purchased from MSN Music to continue playing. That is, until mounting bad publicity caused the company to rethink that decision.

In SpiralFrog’s case, users will only be able to play songs obtained from the service for the next 60 days.

But many record company executives are questioning whether ad-driven free sites like SpiralFrog are competing with music sales. When radio was the only source of ad-driven free music, stations were seen as promotional outlets for the music industry. However, if someone can hear “Freebird” as many times as he or she wants, why buy the CD?

“There’s nothing left to promote … this way,” says a high-level music exec, according to CNET. “At what point do they stop promoting and start competing.”


They’d Love To Change The World

Akon and Peter Buffett, the duo behind the antislavery collaboration, “Blood Into Gold,” relaunched a Web site dedicated to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

It’s called IsThereSomethingICanDo.com, and it’s about a vast array of social issues facing everybody today. Serious stuff like poverty and economic development, empowering girls and women, HIV/AIDS, and environmental sustainability and clean water.

IsThereSomethingICanDo.com will focus on human trafficking now through April, and will feature several non-government agencies, including Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET), Polaris Project, Somaly Mam Foundation, United States Fund for UNICEF and Anti-Slavery International.

The site is powered by YourCause.com, which hooks its users’ causes with donors and appropriate and qualified charities. Created by Blastoff Ventures, YourCause.com is closely aligned with the non-profit Network for Good for all donor transactions. YourCause.com’s goal is to “empower millions to raise billions.”

Buffett has been making music for more than 28 years, created many of the original MTV bumpers, and was responsible for many musical peaks in the “Fire Dance” scene in the 1990 flick “Dances With Wolves.”

Along with his involvement with IsThereSomethingICanDo.com, Buffett recently became a member of the YourCause advisory board.

“We hope that we’re able to provide the type of online resource that has the power to change lives,” Buffett said. “With our new re-launch, IsThereSomethingICanDo.com truly answers the title question with a ‘yes.’ There IS something you can do and here’s how.”