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The RIAA, Robin Hood, and The Music Industry

Have you ever tried to change someone’s religious views?  Doesn’t work, right? More often than not, it’s like pouring gas on a fire and it just blows up in your face. Now, imagine that conversation and then squeeze it into a 30 second TV spot or radio ad.  Talk about an uphill battle.  In the same way, convincing a native file sharer born in the digital age that what they’re doing is wrong or immoral is a near impossible task.  It’s kind of like a missionary telling a tribe of aboriginals they’re going to hell for not wearing clothes and dancing around fires. 

Remarkably, this is exactly the strategy anti-piracy campaigns like the “Assassinate a Pop Star” website and the clichéd “You wouldn’t steal a —-” ads have used to get their point across.  One poses as a free download website for popular music, only to show the musician being killed in various ways when their files are illegally downloaded.  The other compares stealing music to purse snatching or stealing a car.  In essence, the anti-piracy group is attempting to appeal to young people’s sense of morality in order to get a hand in their pocket.  It’s about time the music industry wakes up and realizes that campaigns like these absolutely do not serve their intended purpose.  In fact they do just the opposite, and in many cases further damage the integrity of the issue.

File Sharing: A Brief History


Almost a decade has passed since the first peer to peer case was brought before the US Supreme Court against Napster.  Since then, the topic of file sharing has been debated endlessly.  Here’s a quick breakdown in case you’ve been hiding under a rock.

Copyright Supporters Argue

1. P2P file sharing is illegal, and therefore immoral

2. Sharing copyrighted files is the same as stealing physical CDs

3. File sharing is hurting everyone in the music industry

P2P Supporters Argue

1. P2P sharing is illegal, but not immoral

2. File sharing is not stealing because there’s no physical product 

3. The mainstream music industry needs to be killed anyway


Being such a controversial issue for our generation, the understanding of the issues demonstrated by high school seniors should come as no surprise.  12th grader Kamal Dhillon argues convincingly that file sharing is “Not wrong, just illegal”.  Charles Young, a senior at George Washington High School, argues that file sharing doesn’t hurt the artists at all because the “majority of artists revenue doesn’t come from album sales”, but from touring. 

Emily Gould, another high school senior, takes the other side of the debate, stating “If you steal music, you’re a thief”.  In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Jon Sheldrick cites the damage done to musicians, recording engineers, and studio owners, which he witnessed first hand.  For every new argument one side presents, there arises a slew of equally compelling counter arguments.  So the debate rages on.

The Back and Forth


On one side of the fence, many of those arguing for copyright enforcement have had their livelihood directly affected and even destroyed as a result of illegal file sharing.  While, admittedly, some were greedy corporate “fat cats” and what some would call “The Man”, many, if not most, were just regular everyday guys trying to make ends meet.  As a countermeasure against this devastating social trend, millions upon millions of dollars have been thrown at campaigns and lawsuits designed to either reeducate the masses or spook the lost sheep back into the fold.  

The pro file sharing crowd, though, have not been so easily swayed.  While organizations like the RIAA accuse file sharers of “stealing” purely on a monetary basis, the average file sharer views these accusations as a joke.  This is evidenced by the plethora of parodies launched in response to the RIAA media campaigns.  For the p2p crowd to consider what they’re doing as stealing, they would have had to reap some monetary reward.  And all of them know that for them it has never been about the money.  In their eyes, anyone fighting against file sharing is doing battle in Sherwood Forest against none other than Robin Hood and his Merry Men.  He took from the rich and gave to the poor.  This is how the peer-to-peer network views their position.  This fact can be seen because in spite of massive lawsuits against file sharing sites, like Limewire and The Pirate Bay, more files are being downloaded now than ever before. In fact, the forcible closing of The Pirate Bay led to a 300 per cent increase in copycat sites launching.  And if some sort of “three strikes” legislation were eventually passed, you could reasonably expect the same type of feedback in the form of new ways to mask file sharing.  So rather than causing the file sharers to view what they’re doing as wrong or to roll over, these “moral victories” for the RIAA and other pro copyright organizations are completely overshadowed by the enormous backlash of consumers. 

As referenced in Kyle Bylin’s “The Barriers of Music Consumption”, to those born in the digital age, the internet represents freedom.  And while the internet does provide the freedom to think, create, and be heard, along with this has also come a perceived freedom from consequences.  If there are no physical consequences, then all the rules go out the window.  In the same way, if there is no physical object involved, it doesn’t affect the conscience in the same way.  Therefore, to the digital generation, sharing a file isn’t the same as stealing a CD, and the former becomes justifiable.  And, unfortunately for the music industry, this newfound freedom has become very closely attached to our sense of self, the very core of who we are.

The Future?


Balancing nicely atop of this dog-pile of perspectives stands a clear victor – the file sharers. Illegal file sharing is still growing and the strategies employed to date to overcome this hurdle have been completely ineffective. 

While it’s one thing for those who have lost their jobs to campaign for anti-piracy law, it’s something entirely different when those running what should be relevant, profitable businesses do it. 

Why, you ask? 

Since the customer is the one keeping you in business in the first place, the customer is always right- even when you think they’re wrong. 

From a business standpoint, this brings up the most important question facing the music industry today: Since when did it become a profitable business practice to chide your core demographic?  The whole of the capitalist system is based on giving the customer what they want.  In this case it should be painfully clear from a monetary standpoint what the customer wants.  And, since it appears that every time a “moral” victory is won in court by a pro copyright group there is a massive backlash by their core demographic, what business in their right mind would continue such counterproductive nonsense?  After due consideration on this issue, from a pragmatic standpoint, I find I must concede the merit of the file sharing group’s position and end with this question:

Who, but an industry blinded by memories of the power they once held, would continue in such fruitless ventures?

Josiah Mann is an independent musician and writer focused on identifying and applying First Principles in any given field of study. His band, Sufficient Cause, is currently releasing their debut EP for free at while blogging the accompanying story.

Reader Comments (10)

I think the rumours of the death of the recording industry have been greatly exaggerated.

Apart from that, you seem to miss an important point - only the person who actually pays for the product is a customer.

The corollary to this is that capitalism isn't "based on giving the customer what they want". It is, in fact, based on selling the customer what they want.

See the difference?

I'd also suggest that taking the moral high ground in a post that criticises the opposing side of doing the same isn't exactly persuasive, especially since the rest of the argument is quite thin. For one thing it fails to even briefly address the question of where the money's gonna come from.

Then again, I wouldn't expect any different.

One thing I'd like to mention that rarely comes up in these debates is that the "pirates" make money. Pirate Bay is not a non-profit file sharing site (it makes money off of ad revenue or at least it used to, I haven't been there since the most recent sale of the site), nor are most other sites even when they are free to a user. It's funny that people running these sites say things to the effect of "music is meant to be free" & "copyright is a relic of a forgotten age" while they are making money off of these things & the copyright holder is not. I guess one could argue (& I'm sure they would) that they're no different from labels who never pay their artists, but the difference is that the artists don't chose the partnership which is a significant difference to me.

Interesting article. The one thing that seems most interesting to me about the debate is the massive amount of money being left on the table by companies pursuing ancient, dust-covered business models. The anti-piracy strategy is just a lame move by people with no better ideas.

June 29 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

"Since the customer is the one keeping you in business in the first place, the customer is always right- even when you think they’re wrong."

So because someone bought an mp3 from me, I need to honor their opinion that I need more autotune hooks in my songs? No.

I obviously don't know you or your life, but I have to seriously question how much time you've actually spent working for businesses if you're actually repeating "the customer is always right" -- that's brainwashing for "Sales Associates" and other wages slaves...the cannon fodder you throw up on the front lines to keep the customers away from YOU.

Because the customer is actually very seldom right. Rule #1 of marketing, bluntly, is that the customer is a dumb lemming who has no idea what they even think and it's your job to tell them. Consumer capitalism is not based on informed or rational actors, it's herd management.

There is absolutely such a thing as a "Problem Customer" and they're alarmingly common in all industries.

June 29 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Thanks a lot for the comments everyone.
The point of the article is not to take the moral high ground, but to point out the insanity of trying to control the world rather than adapt to a changing environment. Bruce Lee's philosophy of fighting talks about being fluid like water. I believe the same applies to a smart business. You can't bash through every obstacle, some require a bit more tact.
Brian, you're right about some of the file sharing companies making money. I was more referring to the everyday joe sharing with his buddies and why the moral argument couldn't work:)
Agreed Greg, but there are a lot of smart entrepreneurs out there finding ways to make it work.
And Justin, we're talking apples and oranges man. I'm not arguing about music, but business. In the scenario you gave, if you wanted your music to be more profitable, you would have to 1. Add the autotune hooks they want. or 2. Find different customers or a different way to monetize it.

June 29 | Registered CommenterJosiah Mann

Shucks, my business is music.

Even if you're selling premium tea, what people want is not necessarily what you should do. The music industry made horrible, arrogant, ignorant decisions -- that doesn't change the fact that "The customer is always right" is an empty cliche that's not even decent business advice.

I was nit-picking, I apologize. I just think we'd all be better writers if everyone was an asshole like me. Everything is phrasing.

June 29 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I agree in principle with what you are saying Justin, haha. Semantics suck, I'm generally more focused on principle- to my demise I suppose:) You have a great site by the way, it's in my feed reader:D

June 29 | Registered CommenterJosiah Mann

@ Krzysztof Wiszniewski
"only the person who actually pays for the product is a customer."
In 1969 my friend bought the LP Led Zeppelin I.
And we listened to it over and over again. He lent it to me and I recorded it on my father's tape recorder. How's that for filesharing?
And we went to their concert in Rotterdam. And I payed for the concert.
And you are telling me I was not a customer?

Today I read on some blog: "If they don't download your songs, you are totally NOT interesting!"

I saw the Glastonbury concerts at BBC this weekend. 40.000 people singing the songs of the performing artist Stevie Wonder. 25 to 30 year old kids who have all these songs on their Ipod?
And payed for it? Dream on!
No, they payed for the concert!

June 29 | Registered CommenterHarry D

@Harry D:
When you went to their concert you were their customer. However, consider the exact same situation when you remove the "we went to their concert in Rotterdam" bit.

Your worth to Led Zeppelin as a fan in this alternative scenario: zero.

The "hunt for the Big Dope" position you take (that is: people won't buy the records, but they will buy something else - see my blog for more on this) rests on two very shaky assumptions: one is that the artist will be in a position to sell something else to you (for instance, if Zep had never played Rotterdam, you wouldn't have gone) and two, that the person who chose not to pay for recordings will chose to pay for something else. Some will, but all data that I've seen so far suggests that these are a minority.

What this means is that the fans of music expect the level of output (in terms of quality and quantity) to remain constant while at the same time they pay less - if only because once they'd pay for both the recordings and the live show, now they want to pay only for the live show. It won't work.


"Your worth to Led Zeppelin as a fan in this alternative scenario: zero".
I think you mean "as a customer". I assume that "fans" are worth gold to an artist.

Being a fan doesn't neccisarily mean you're in a position to buy their products.
As a 15 year old I didn't have the money to pay for a Beatles record, but I was a big fan.
So when I bought all of their records in the 70ties, it was too late for the Beatles. They already split up! Thank you Harry for not being a good fan/customer ;-)

"two, that the person who chose not to pay for recordings will chose to pay for something else. Some will, but all data that I've seen so far suggests that these are a minority."
Maybe you're right, but when I saw 40.000 fans/customers at Glastonbury singing along with Stevie Wonder, given their age I assumed that they have his music on their Ipods and never payed for his recordings. But they did for the concert.

I still consider filesharing as advertisement for artists.

July 4 | Registered CommenterHarry D

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