Live From Ohio: Rock Stars and the RIAA

A representative of the recording industry, a professor, a songwriter and a founding member of Jefferson Airplane discuss the future of file sharing.
October 31, 2007

Ohio University played host on Tuesday to a panel that hit close to home as music experts, critics of and sympathizers to illegal downloading, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer discussed the finer points of peer-to-peer file sharing.

The debate is hardly theoretical at a campus that has received 100 pre-litigation letters this year from the Recording Industry Association of America as part of the group's controversial tactic of forcing college administrators into a reluctant enforcer role against illegal downloading. Partially as a result, Ohio University announced an unusually strict policy of blocking virtually all unauthorized peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic earlier this year. To provide a legal alternative, the institution has since joined Ruckus, a subscription-based music service that is currently free to students.

The participants, who represented several points of view in a complicated legal and ethical debate, were collegial despite some pointed differences. Many students in the audience, presumably avid music downloaders, posed questions to artists who themselves rely on royalty fees for a living. A representative from the RIAA, meanwhile -- an Ohio University graduate -- faced pointed criticisms of the association's tactics and the industry's revenue model.

Most seemed to agree, at least, that mp3s don't match the fidelity of good old vinyl. "The quality sucks," said Jorma Kaukonen, an original member of the Jefferson Airplane.

Some of the more colorful opinions expressed at the event:

  • Eddie Ashworth, an Ohio University instructor and an audio engineer, questioned the entire premise of the RIAA's campaign, noting recent research that finds "equivocal and tentative" evidence, at best, of any correlation between downloading and loss of revenues for record companies (losses, he noted, that are occurring in the context of major financial struggles for other American industries at the moment). He noted that suing people to share music may work in the near term but that the long-term effects have yet to be proven. It's not an "intelligent business move to criminalize" its customers, he said. “I’m embarrassed by the tactics I’ve seen the RIAA take.”
  • Jonathan Lamy, the RIAA's director of communications, said his clients' role was to "help [artists] bring music to the public, to help the marketplace grow." At several points he asked audience members for ideas on how to adapt to the changing marketplace while maintaining copyright integrity (such as offering more music through mobile phones). The RIAA's campaign against illegal downloading has “helped to put a check on what ... was rampant illegal activity," he said.
  • Timothy Vonville, the president of Ohio University's Student Senate, began with a collection of quotes from students, ranging from those who side with the artists to those who unabashedly support peer-to-peer file sharing. Calling the RIAA's targeting of students "discrimination," Vonville said, "They have self-labeled their efforts within Ohio University as a success.... If it is to stop all illegal transfer of copyrighted substance ... many would be hard pressed to categorize their efforts as a triumph."

One recurring theme among students who posed questions to the panelists was the notion that recording companies were profiting at the expense of artists -- an idea that some say they use to justify illegal downloading.

"There’s only so much money, only so much power, people at the top can have," one said to Lamy. "As long as you have privilege, we’ll be stealing ... and sharing music.”


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