A Brief History of Litigious Music Industry Idiocy

You might have seen the picture doing the rounds on the web over the last couple of days – a screenshot of a YouTube video of John Cage’s 4’33”, with a whacking big notice at the bottom proclaiming, “NOTICE This video contains an audio track that has not been authorized by WMG. The audio has been disabled.” The joke, of course, is that 4’33” doesn’t have any audio — it’s four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. We’re sure that Cage would appreciate the humor here, but the fact that it’s all too believable that WMG might have actually done this is kind of sad. After all, getting this audio pulled from YouTube would be far from the most ridiculous thing the music industry has done in recent years in its ongoing war-on-drugs style exercise in copyright-litigating futility. Join us after the jump for some key moments in legal idiocy.

1985: “Home Taping Is Killing Music”

Those of a certain age will remember that industry-sponsored scaremongering certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to the 21st century. Back in the 1980s, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) responded to the perceived threat of people taping songs off the radio instead of forking over their money to its members with a big-money advertising campaign based around the slogan “Home Taping Is Killing Music (And It’s Illegal).” The fact that it wasn’t, and it wasn’t, didn’t seem to bother the BPI in the slightest — never let the facts get in the way of a good scare campaign, eh? — and the legal fudgery and incendiary rhetoric set the scene for what was to come 20 years later.

The 1990s: Life is good

Ah, the halcyon days of the record industry. CDs were sold for $30 a pop, profits went up and up, copious cocaine was snorted, huge deals were signed, expensive videos were made, and the world was a very lovely place indeed to be a music industry executive. (Artists, as ever, didn’t make a whole lot by comparison, but hey, who’s ever cared about them?) But sadly, a dark cloud was on the horizon. Its name: the internet.

1999-2002: The battle with Napster

The first of the big file-sharing services, Napster was where all the cool kids were to be found at the turn of the millennium. Before Napster, most internet music exchange was still based on traditional ideas — tape-trading, etc. — that were facilitated by the ease of communication that e-mail provided. But Napster changed everything — now the internet was being used to move the songs themselves, in the newly popular MP3 format. The RIAA took one look at this and nearly had conniptions (as, famously, did Lars Ulrich.) The inevitable legal action followed, and in 2001, the industry emerged victorious. Its success set the scene for a decade of litigation, which has turned out to have two results: a) virtually no success in stopping file-sharing, and b) ten years of dreadful publicity for the RIAA. Starting with…

2003: The Snoop-lovin’ grandmother

Fresh from resounding victories over Napster and its ilk, the RIAA decided to get personal with its smackdowns, pursuing a strategy of suing individuals who had allegedly shared files over the internet. The word “allegedly” is standard bet-hedging parlance for discussion of legal issues, but it seems particularly apposite here, because frankly, some of the cases brought sounded pretty dodgy. Like this one: the case of Sarah Ward, a 66-year-old retiree who allegedly downloaded several million dollars’ worth of music from KaZaA, including Snoop Dogg’s entire back catalog. If this sounds a wee bit, questionable, well, The New York Times thought so, too.

2003: The amnesty that wasn’t

Perhaps recognizing the way the wind was blowing — i.e. that the general public was starting to see them as an ongoing exercise in being unpleasant to consumers — the RIAA decided that a softly, softly approach might be the way to go. They offered amnesty to file-sharers, promising that if they “refrained from future infringement” and deleted offending material, they’d be safe from prosecution. Only, they wouldn’t: all the program actually promised was that the RIAA itself wouldn’t sue, not any of the labels who actually owned copyright to the music. There’s more information on this move here if you’re interested — suffice it to say that this was a pretty dirty move (or would have been, if anyone had actually accepted the amnesty).

2005: Suing a dead woman

The cover story of last week’s Seattle Weekly relates the tale of the porn industry suing a blind man for allegedly downloading pirated copies of naughty films, but never fear, the RIAA can trump even this. Perhaps smarting from the less than overwhelming success of its amnesty, the group returned to its sledgehammer tactics on piracy — and in 2005, its lawyers filed a claim against 78-year-old Gertrude Walton for allegedly downloading 700 songs via peer-to-peer networks. Sadly, Gertrude couldn’t attend court to testify as to the unlikeliness of her having spent a great deal of time on LimeWire — she died in December 2004.

2006: Suing a family without a computer

But wait, it gets better. In a case that suggested the RIAA’s lawyers’ methods for identifying the IP addresses of alleged pirates were, y’know, perhaps just a wee bit ropey, a lawsuit filed in 2006 against 235 alleged file-sharers included the names of the Walls family of Rome, GA. The poor old Wallses were justifiably mystified by this — they didn’t own a computer. Sure, someone might have spoofed their IP, or perhaps former tenants were to blame — but wouldn’t you think to check on that before you filed a lawsuit against them? Not, it seems, if you’re the RIAA.

2007: Suing a 10-year-old girl

No, wait, there’s more! When disabled single mother Tanya Andersen decided to push back against a lawsuit from the RIAA and counter-sue, the group’s lawyers decided to play dirty, insisting on trying to drag her ten-year-old daughter into court to make a deposition. Classy. Incidentally, Andersen eventually won her case, and the ongoing PR and legal disaster that was Atlantic vs. Andersen may well have finally been the case that convinced the RIAA that its strategy was at best ineffective and at worst actively counter-productive.

2008 and beyond: Pulling audio off YouTube

Here’s the thing: if I were a musician (a professional one, I mean), I’d want my music to be heard by as many people as possible. So someone’s put it on a YouTube video? Great! So someone’s embedded my video on their blog? Awesome! But then, when have artists’ interests ever had anything to do with the music industry’s actions? And so it is that over the last few years, bazillions of “unauthorized” music tracks have been pulled off YouTube, with the end result that if you happen to be on a label who pursues this strategy, there are fewer places for people to hear your music than there would be had this policy not been adopted. You’d think an industry worried about lost sales and illegal downloading would be making it as easy as possible for people to hear the product it was selling. But no. That makes far too much sense.

2008: Admission of defeat

Three years ago, the RIAA finally acknowledged the futility of its debt collector-style, pay-us-now-or-you’ll-be-really-sorry tactics (although, sadly, not their moral contemptibility) and stopped suing individuals. This means the end of this feature, happily — for all that it’s entertaining to look back at the sheer level of incompetence on show, it’s also thoroughly depressing that even now, the music industry still has so little understanding of its customers, its artists and the world in general.

Now, if you’ll excuse us, it’s off to YouTube to stare at a blank screen for the next four minutes and 33 seconds.