Thursday, November 8, 2007

The MAFIAA’s Biggest Mistake

Okay, so sue me. I've changed my mind about the articles I'm publishing. The MAFIAA is an organization whose operations would normally be counted as criminal.

No, I'm not talking about the Italians, the Russians, or the Mexicans; nor is this a misspelling. I'm talking about the Music And Film Industry Associations of America (MAFIAA), which includes the RIAA, MPAA, ASCAP, and a host of others based here in the United States, with hundreds of foreign counterparts between them which are funded by our patronage. The idea of stealing music that has been purchased isn't a new one, but it certainly is the foundation for the tens of thousands of lawsuits that the RIAA has specifically been found to be doing.

But the biggest mistake has been not listening to their consumers. Hundreds of millions of people (up to 15% of all internet users, which equates to about 10% of the world's population, if my figures are right) use file-sharing technologies such as BitTorrent, Gnutella, and a host of other lesser-known ones. Some actually use it legally, though the MAFIAA wants us to believe that any unauthorized use is (or should be) illegal. They've spent 55 years trying to prove that, well against the tide of consumer desire.

And they've made their consumers into their biggest enemies. Without understanding why, their prosecution of Jammie Thomas has led to their being boycotted. And now there are studies completed in Canada that show that there's a positive impact on music sales, rather than a negative impact.

So why are they still pushing to make it a criminal offense?

It's never really been about money. I realized this for the first time this past summer when ASCAP went after online radio and won, and then used that win to go after radio stations. Though they use financial means and excuses, the real issue here is control of a population that cannot be controlled. When the MAFIAA first got really organized back in the 1970's, they wanted us to believe that recording public broadcasts was illegal. The Supreme Court disagreed. And now the claims are the same, but the argument is different. Reading through the legal materials I have access to, the claims they make aren't much better. But what I do see is a government rapidly losing the high ground because they refuse to back up ordinary citizens' rights. Citizens like Ms. Thomas, a single mother who didn't even know she was being sued for months and months.

The main error here is that citizens' rights have historically trumped those of any big business, with the exception of the past 3 decades. The anti-consumerism prevalent in the courts today is the product of a huge campaign of both outright lies and misrepresentations of the truth. It's based on faulty data that nobody can seem to produce. And in fact, they've been rather tight-lipped about methodologies used, and speculation by many of the so-called pirates seems to be that they hide it because they have something to hide.

And yet they persist. If it's not about money, what's it really about?


Plainly and simply, they want to hold all the keys to all the locks on all the doors and gates. They want to be able to be the ones who determine what is or is not fair use, and they want to make sure that only those who have money are allowed to make that determination. This effectively creates a minority. It makes the average consumer unable to listen to music unless they pay for it. In their world, there would be no more radio, no internet that they didn't control, and we'd all be at their mercy as far as which web sites we visited. Subliminal messages wouldn't be illegal, though cussing up a storm would be unless it was paid for on an audio track.

The MAFIAA organizations want to make us their slaves. And I, for one, am against that.

But so are millions of others, including artists. Artists like Radiohead (independently), and Lamont (sponsored by The Pirate Bay) are starting to be increasingly aware of the level of control associated with these organizations, and they seem to be out to prove that they have what it takes to make it without the big labels. Radiohead's cancellation of their contract with EMI records, for example, is a sign that things could change. The refined studio sound is something that consumers have been moving away from for years, and this is the main sign that big-name labels should have taken for a death knell. But they can't attack individual artists for producing their own music.

The internet has changed society. Some changes have been for better, and some for worse, but the bottom line is that change was inevitable. The entire generation of Internet users who have grown up online are now entering adulthood, and they're beginning to realize just how easy it is to spot exploitative practices. Most that I've spoken to seem to be anti-corporate, which is a warning sign in my mind that big corporations are about to become a thing of the past if they don't start acting like adults instead of crying to Congress that their consumers are taking their toys away.

The failure of these companies to treat their people the way they themselves would want to be treated is a sure sign that they are caught up in issues of money instead of in good business practices. As anyone in the franchise business knows, you should leave the majority of the profits to the owner of the franchise, and take a smaller slice of a large number of pies. Instead, they've taken most of the pie before it's even given, and when they don't make money, they charge artists for the extended money they've given. Then, when they manage to sell something to consumers, they are selling for roughly three to five times what it cost to produce the package (and only 30% of that is typically intermediaries). They're the biggest, meanest dogs on the block, and their marketing model is failing miserably to cash in.

So what does any of this have to do with democracy?

Put bluntly: the people in these organizations are anti-democracy. Their conservatism crossed the line into fascism long ago, and with that change they began to lobby Congress to pass laws that are still awaiting the test of Constitutionality. Because they are self-serving and greedy, they inspire a lack of cooperation and even rebellion against them. And with their complicit behaviors, Congress is also inspiring dissent and the seeds of rebellion have been planted. This becomes dangerous when people learn how to counteract disruption techniques that the government does on a regular basis to break up smaller groups.

The current US Administration's tendency to be self-serving is also showing up in poll after poll that places Bush at the bottom of the heap. People just don't feel as though the government serves them anymore. And in this, I agree with Barack Obama. But what I don't agree with is that the government has become anti-democracy. Those in the government I've spoke to believe that by serving these companies, they ultimately protect the national product of the United States, which in turn offers citizens a better quality of life. Though this isn't actually true, it is logical. In practice, what happens is that we erode our civil liberties with five very wrong Acts of Congress (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the NET Act of 1997, the USA-PATRIOT Act of 2001, and the acts of Congress passed earlier this year which essentially strip any expectation of privacy we can enjoy in our communications).

We can ill-afford to simply ignore the Constitution. We don't have the right any more, for example, to photocopy a page from a book for research purposes. We can't show off a woodcut out of an old out-of-print book because someone might still own the copyright. We are no longer allowed to creatively derive anything from music. We can't make backups of music or software CD's, and wear out the backups instead of the originals. All of that in the United States is illegal.

Fair use under the law is basically no more. There are some limited fair use rights, but the long history of traditional fair use is now illegal. This is an erosion of free expression (and therefore, free speech), and it deserves our attention. We should work to change laws over time to return these individual rights, so that the music industry can continue to create products we enjoy. We should encourage the music industry to make radical changes to their model in order to encourage artists to produce, rather than discouraging them from producing elsewhere. We should point out the exploitations against us, because if the population as a whole is saying something, the government must listen. If it doesn't, it's no longer a democracy.

Republican democracy or no, our country is at a turning point in its history. Either we'll continue to become one of the most open and creative societies in existence, or we will make ourselves into the new Soviet Union, fooling ourselves into believing we're the best simply because we said so and we have one or two nice things that don't actually balance the ills that occur.

Make no mistake: the enemy is not government, nor even big business in general, but these few specific organizations and individuals who insist on changing the laws to accommodate their practices which would be criminal if they were anyone else. The enemy is the fascist mindset that every aspect of everything must be controlled, and that individual rights have no meaning in the face of (and I quote) "larger interests".

The very definition of fascism is that individual rights are secondary to state interests, as it was defined by "Grandfather" Mussolini. Today, the word fascist is considered a political slur, but the truth of the matter is that these organizations and individuals are indeed acting fascist, according to the definition. At the time, we were against Mussolini, and we took out his regime fairly efficiently. Democracy will always win, if it's organized enough to care. Individuals can care, but until we get organized as consumers and voters to take back our government, we are not deserving of democracy and will continue to lose to fascism until there's nothing recognizably democratic about the way we operate. We're headed to become just like China, and I (for one) don't think that's really a democracy, in spite of what their constitution says.