TOPICS > Politics

Illegally Downloading Music

September 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Since the late ’90s, more and more people have been getting their music for free off the Internet.

YOUNG MAN: Music is like an art form. Why should I have to pay money to, like, view art?

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday the music industry took another step to stop it, for the first time going after people downloading and swapping music online. The Recording Industry of America, or RIAA, filed 261 lawsuits against people who shared copyrighted music over the Internet.

While the largest group of music swappers are college students, the lawsuits targeted all walks of life, including parents, bankers, and bus drivers, who had all copied an average of 1,000 songs into files. Record companies have blamed the 31 percent drop in CD music sales over the past three years mostly on the online music piracy, and sued many of the online file-sharing networks. RIAA President Cary Sherman said yesterday’s lawsuits were aimed at keeping people from stealing music.

CARY SHERMAN: We want people to stop engaging in the theft of music so that people can go on making it. This is a terrible thing where people are biting the hands that make the music and destroying the very music that they want to continue to be created.

RAY SUAREZ: In April, the industry settled lawsuits against four college students accused of making thousands of songs available on campus networks. Now the recording industry is offering an amnesty deal for file-sharers who turn themselves in before being subpoenaed and promise to stop sharing music. Under copyright law, music companies can sue for up to $150,000 per song. This week’s lawsuits are expected to be followed by thousands more.

RAY SUAREZ: Some reactions now to the lawsuits and the industry’s actions from two men who are writing and making the music. John Flansburgh is a singer and guitarist for the rock-pop duo They Might be Giants. Their Web site features songs by the band that can be downloaded for free. And Chuck Cannon is a songwriter in Nashville whose work has been recorded by such artists as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Trisha Yearwood. He is the president of the music publishing company Wasissa River Music.

Chuck Cannon, let’s start with you. What is your reaction to the RIAA’s decision to sue individual down-loaders?

CHUCK CANNON: I think it’s sad that the RIAA has had to do that to basically serve as a deterrent for people who are stealing music online.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think that will stop people who were doing it regularly, doing it commonly, once they see that, a sort of cautionary warning?

CHUCK CANNON: Well, I’m not certain that it will entirely stop it. I know that there are speed limits on the freeway, and it doesn’t entirely stop speeders. But the threat of a ticket slows people down.

RAY SUAREZ: You say you regret that the RIAA had to do it, but when you watch them move ahead with these suits, do you feel they’re protecting you, as someone who writes songs?

CHUCK CANNON: Well, I think that they’ve tried everything else, and it seems that nothing else has worked. And I do believe that if someone is faced with the likelihood that they will, that they may face a fine or face some prison time, I’m sure that will serve as a deterrent for a lot of people.

RAY SUAREZ: John Flansburgh, what is your reaction to the RIAA’s move?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: It seems kind of bizarre to me, actually. I think it’s very strange for a company that, an organization that represents such a schmoozey business to be kind of running for grinch the way the RIAA has been for the past five years or so.

RAY SUAREZ: But it says, the industry says, and individual companies that are members of the RIAA say that people have been getting for free what they’re trying to sell in stores and their options on how to stop it are pretty limited. What is your reaction to that?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: Well, I mean people hear the radio for free as well. And in some ways I think a lot of artists have realized that the MP-3 format is a great way to promote what they’re doing, especially if they don’t have unlimited access to the radio or MTV. It’s a way for people to stay in touch with recording artists. I think the RIAA has a valid point. They’re losing a lot of business. But I’m not entirely sure that it’s a battle that they’re really going to be able to win. I think they’re losing valuable time catching up with technology and figuring out where the industry really needs to go next.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, where do you cross the line between promotions– and as you say, I mean, the radio has been seen as a tool for getting people to like new artists since there has been radio. Where do you cross the line between promotion and forgoing people who would otherwise go into a store and buy a recording of yours?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: It’s a very blurry line. And it’s been blurry for a long time. I think the reality is, the challenge of the Internet is trying to figure out where ownership starts; you know — in some ways, what’s the difference between broadcasting and publishing if there is no actual thing. If you have on-demand music in your house that you can just play from what appears to be a radio, what’s the difference between that and owning a CD?

RAY SUAREZ: Chuck Cannon, over the years, I’ve spoken to performers who have given their music away for free on the Web, and they see it as a way of garnering more interest in the touring and performing they do. Are they in an objectively different spot from someone like you who writes material for other artists and doesn’t tour?

CHUCK CANNON: Of course there are. You know, first of all, radio music is not for free. All radio stations have to pay blanket license to BMI, CSACR and ASCAP in order to use that music. The music you hear on the radio, the songwriters do get paid for that music. And, you know, I think it’s exciting that someone would want to give their music away for free. If that works for your business model, that’s fine. But this is a business model that’s been foisted upon people who make their– whose livelihood is making music, making up music and not necessarily going out on the road to promote it.

There’s a long history of professional songwriters in America. And what this does is basically foists this business model on us without our permission. I make 8 cents… well, a song will make 8 cents for a songwriter who wrote the song that is on an album that sells. If he co-writes that song, he makes 2 cents. If he is published, he is going to make 2 cents. If I want to give my music away for free, I would do that.

But it doesn’t… I’m confused a bit here about what the business model might be that will compete with free. And if you want to give your music away for free, that’s your choice. If you own it, you ought to have that choice to be able to do that. The problem with that is that no one’s asked me. No one’s asked me if it’s okay to take my music for free. And in fact it’s not okay for people to take my music for free.

I’ve taken out a mortgage. I support my family. I’m not any different than anyone else who has a job. I just happen to make up songs that millions of people want to own. Typically what has heretofore been the case, I have been paid by anyone who wants to get one of my songs. I get a small royalty. And what this does is basically, when you download one of my songs without my permission or without paying for it, you have, in essence, intercepted my paycheck.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go right to John Flansburgh at that point and ask him if he could envision a business model where someone like Chuck Cannon is protected, where his intellectual-property rights are protected, and people still get to bypass the music shelf?

CHUCK CANNON: I’m definitely interested in a business model that competes with free. That would be really interesting. I’d like to hear John address that.

JOHN FLANSBURGH: Well, I think your point about business models changing is really well taken. I think in some sense, the business model might have already changed. I think there is a real generation gap between the record industry and record consumers. The kids who are downloading MP-3s don’t even feel as guilty as they would if they were stealing penny candy. They feel so alienated from the music business and all the money related to the music business.

And there are a lot of organizations intercepting paychecks besides fans. I think it might actually be too late for…


JOHN FLANSBURGH: Record companies. It’s a strange business, the music business, um, and I think there’s… the point here is that the technology is already here and we haven’t come up with a solution to figure out a way to get songwriters royalties to them. And it might just be too late.

RAY SUAREZ: John Flansburgh, the first attempt was to try to make places like Napster into legitimate businesses that paid royalties to artists. Has that worked, or is the RIAA trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle and try to just not work with this technology?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: Well, I don’t think you’re going to solve the problem by suing 12 year olds and 72 year olds for downloading too much free MP-3. I think the Apple site is probably a good example of what could work, but there is a generational shift. You know, most college students today have downloaded an extraordinary amount of MP-3s. It’s very common behavior. I think people get used to it; they’re already used to it. And in some ways I think it’s very possible the record industry might already be on its way out.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the Apple site an encouraging development for you, Chuck Cannon, where people do pay 99 cents and download a single song?

CHUCK CANNON: Of course it is. I’m not a Ludite. I’m quite interested in people getting my songs. That’s my object. I write a song. I hope a recording artist records that song, then I hope that people really enjoy that song enough to go out and get it. I want people to get it. As a matter of fact, I think that downloading is probably the wave of the future. It’s the best distribution model I’ve ever seen for distributing songs. But the problem is that… there is not a generation gap. I have to take issue with that. There is not a generation gap about stealing.

If you take something that doesn’t belong to you without paying for it or without permission, that’s stealing — any way you look at it. We haven’t invented technology that makes the concept of it being wrong to steal, We haven’t invented technology that makes that concept go away. I’m encouraged by people who want to give their music away to generate more support for their tours, generate more support… but they’re able to go out and sell T-shirts. They’re able to go out and sell tickets. They’re able to still have a business model that is viable in a world where they give their music away for free.

RAY SUAREZ: We are going to end it there. Chuck Cannon, John Flansburgh, thank you gentlemen both.