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A View from Brad King

RIAA Questions Legality of Ripping CDs

The recording industry doesn’t want you to rip CDs you’ve purchased. Now the labels hope to codify that into law.

  • February 17, 2006

The Recording Industry Association of America, the lobbying arm of the music industry, has waged a contentious, six-year battle against companies trying to make music more digital and portable. With many of the large cases now behind them, the industry appears to be gearing up to stop consumers from ripping copies of CDs they have purchased, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Here’s a snippet from EFF lawyer Fred von Lohmann’s post on the matter:

As part of the ongoing DMCA rule-making proceedings, the RIAA and other copyright industry associations submitted a filing that included…as part of their argument that space-shifting and format-shifting do not count as noninfringing uses, even when you are talking about making copies of your own CDs.

A little history: The RIAA has successful attacked file-trading services such as Napster and locker services such as MP3.com over the years, shuttering services that allowed people to swap music files or use centralized servers to deliver music to any Internet-connected device, at least in the United States.

During many of those proceedings (and I had the benefit of sitting through a variety of court cases during my time at Wired News), the recording industry made it clear that fair use – an amorphous portion of the law that allows copyrighted materials to sometimes be reproduced without cost or permission – wasn’t a right that consumers should expect to have.

For those of us who covered the early days of the burgeoning digital music sector, those arguments were a bit frightful; however, we weren’t concerned because any of us thought that music should be free (…free as in free beer, that is) for consumers. We were all writers, so we understand the importance of creators being paid for their work. What was frightening was the argument that content – apparently any content – could be locked down to the point that it became impossible for consumers to really use – to the fullest extent – emerging digital technologies to access information.

The RIAA, though, did a masterful job of portraying this issue not as a larger intellectual property/copyright debate, but instead as a group of freeloading kids trying to steal money from the pockets of artists. (The MPAA, which represents the movie industry, one-upped the RIAA when it ran a series of commercials showcasing the blue-collar workers in Hollywood who would lose their jobs if studios lost money because of piracy. Presumably, studio execs would still pull down their huge salaries – but that was beside the point.)

Now that some of the larger battles have been won, according to von Lohmann, the RIAA appears to be backtracking on its earlier statements that, while fair use wasn’t a consumer right, they could be expected to have the freedom to space- and format-shift entertainment that had been legitimately purchased.

Honestly, von Lohmann’s blog post at the EFF didn’t surprise me. I’m long past being shocked when the entertainment industry tries to lock down its content.

Here is my concern on this issue: now that Apple’s iTunes and iPods have become so ubiquitous, it will be interesting to see if the RIAA and the labels press Jobs and company to 1) curtail the ability of people to make backup copies of legally purchased material (or begin adding on big fees for those who want to make backups) and 2) either restrict or add big fees to anyone who wants to rip their own, legally purchased music and upload it to their iPod.

To be fair, I have no inside information that Apple would ever do that (so slow down on the hate mail). In fact, if Microsoft had the ubiquitous player and music store, I would be equally concerned, for this simple reason: the music industry has gone out of its way to make sure that only a small number of companies sell digital music in a meaningful way; and for years the digerati have mused that this has been done because it would be much easier to control distribution patterns if open competition was discouraged.

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