Cross: Should Music Lovers Boycott the RIAA?

I have been thinking a lot recently about the RIAA boycott organized by the gadget blog Gizmodo.

They're fed up with the Recording Industry Association of America's actions regarding digital-rights management and lawsuits, so they're trying to get all their readers and everyone else who will listen to spread the word: Don't buy any album or online song published by a label that is a member of the RIAA for the entire month of March.

The logic goes like this: The RIAA members [EMI, Sony BMG, Universial Music and Warner Music Group] care most about money and least about their customers or their rights, so if you hit them where it hurts the most (the balance sheet), they'll start to listen. Maybe.

• Click here to read Gizmodo's 'Anti-RIAA Manifesto.'

I keep having these on-again off-again internal struggles with the RIAA and DRM.

First I'm avoiding the iPod, then I'm on board with it again, then I'm ditching it, then I'm reviewing the first Zune player and liking it, then I'm posting on message boards trying to correct some long-standing FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] about how Vista will supposedly infect all your stuff with DRM and slows down games and everything else because it's constantly polling your hardware to check for DRM compliance (which isn't true).

• Click here for's Personal Technology Center.

So Gizmodo's RIAA Manifesto is of interest to me, and I find the boycott interesting.

I'm on board, in the sense that I'm on board every month: I haven't bought a record from an RIAA member in months (maybe over a year) and I don't buy $.99 tracks with DRM on any online music store.

That doesn't mean I'm down on DRM as a technology, though. I actually willfully participate in it, where I think it makes sense.

Where is that, you ask? Subscription services.

My stance on DRM is this: I will not willfully buy music or movies that include DRM, because if I own something, I want to be able to do with it whatever legal thing I want. And DRM prevents that.

But I will lease music (or movies) with DRM at a substantial discount. I'm not gonna pay the same amount, or more, for music that has fewer capabilities. But I will pay a whole heckuva lot less for music with some restrictions.

Leases are like that. Whether it's an apartment, a car, or digital music, a lease basically says "you can get this for a lot less money and use it until you lease ends, but you can't do anything you want with it because it's not really yours."

If I lease a car, it's cheaper than buying it. My monthly payments are a lot lower, but I can't paint it, put in a crazy stereo system, install a spoiler, or replace the window tint with something darker.

I can't knock down walls in my leased apartment, or paint them without permission, or start rewiring stuff, or lay down wall-to-wall carpeting.

So with the Zune Pass, or Napster, or Urge, it's the same thing. I pay $15 a month — the price of a single CD — and I download as much stuff as I want. I currently download maybe 5 to 8 albums a month this way and a handful of individual tracks, so I'm getting a great deal.

But like any lease, the music or comedy albums or whatever aren't really mine. So DRM makes sense there. Should I end my lease by stopping my $15 a month, I can't play the music anymore. Okay, fair enough. After all, I don't own it.

I don't know that Gizmodo's RIAA boycott will actually work. The site is very popular, but I'm not sure it has the reach to really make a serious dent in the record and online sales of RIAA members.

Let's suppose it does, just for the sake of argument. Let's suppose RIAA member labels see a 15 percent to 20 percent drop in sales during March. Are they going to rethink their DRM strategy because of it?

My gut tells me no. It's not like the RIAA doesn't know that customers don't like DRM. DRM complaints have been all over the Web forever.

The RIAA thinks, or at least claims publicly, that dropping sales are due to pirated music. It's just as likely that it would blame a serious drop in sales this month on rampant piracy rather than admit that its customers are unhappy.

I also think the RIAA is largely of the opinion that we will suffer whatever its member companies deem worthy to impose on us.

If they stick DRM on downloaded music, if they sue us, if they put DRM on CDs, we'll complain — but we'll still buy. Because hey, we just gotta have that new Black Eyed Peas album or whatever, right?

Maybe the RIAA will just say, "Let them boycott; sales will bounce right back come April when everyone runs out to buy the records they didn't buy in March."

The cynic in me feels that way, but I hope for something more. I hope the RIAA starts to realize we don't need their crap, and we're tired of giving them money they in turn use to sue everyone under the sun.

Perhaps it won't even matter. A couple of congressmen recently introduced a bill, complete with one of those silly "let's come up with the acronym first" names like the USA PATRIOT Act, that says it will "protect the fair use rights of users of copyrighted material and thereby enable consumers of digital media to use it in ways that enhance their personal convenience."

It's named the FAIR USE act (that's right, it's an acronym for Freedom And Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship, which makes no sense, but "Fair Use" sounds good).

Reading through the bill, I'm not sure it's going to be a cure-all for our DRM worries, even if it passes.

• Click here to read the proposed FAIR USE act (pdf format).

It seems to do a few key things. First, it limits the statutory damages that could be imposed on companies that make technologies like DVD copying and such that circumvent copy protection.

Second, it would protect hardware and software companies from being sued if they make something that can be used to infringe on copyright even if that is not its sole design — so no suing makers of P2P software just because it's capable of transferring music in violation of copyright.

It would amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1996 to make permanent the adjustments that would let libraries and archives break DRM on outmoded or dongle-activated stuff for archival purposes (not a big deal for consumers).

The bill would "authorize consumers to circumvent a lock on a DVD or other audiovisual work in order to skip past commercials at the beginning of it or to bypass personally objectionable content," but would not allow them to back up DVDs for archival or any other purposes.

It would authorize consumers to transmit a work over a home or personal network but not to circumvent DRM for purposes of uploading that work to the Internet.

It would authorize reporters, teachers, and others to circumvent digital locks blocking access to works of substantial public interest, when circumvention is accomplished solely for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, scholarship or research.

As far as I can tell, the bill would not in any way force content providers to sell stuff without DRM on it, nor would it give average users the authority to break DRM just so you can listen to your iTunes-purchased songs on a different device, rip DVDs to your laptop's hard drive to make travel easier, or any of those other things we hate DRM for.

The bill is a nice step forward, but it's not the brass ring.

Is DRM evil? Not inherently, no. It's a tool that can have good legitimate uses (like enforcing subscription-model music or video).

It's terribly abused by content providers these days, preventing us all from doing things with our music, DVDs, hi-def movie discs, and Internet downloaded video that we should be allowed to do.

The bottom line is: Gizmodo's March RIAA boycott may not put the nail in DRM's coffin, and it may not even push the RIAA over the edge with respect to selling DRM-free music.

But geez, it couldn't hurt — so jump on board.

Oh, and while I'm at it ... if they do start selling DRM-free music, I hope it's not MP3. Just because MP3s don't support DRM doesn't mean it's the only DRM-free compressed music format.

You can easily do DRM-free WMA or AAC that would play on any device with a license fee comparable to MP3's, and the sound quality would be much better.

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