Posted Nov 16th, 2009 (7:21 pm) by John-Ross Boyce

According to the Recording Industry Association of America's website, “pirate” is too kind an appellation for the people who illegally download music from the Interweb. “It’s a too benign term that doesn’t even begin to adequately describe the toll that music theft takes on the many artists, songwriters, musicians, record label employees and others whose hard work and great talent make music possible.”

Call me a stickler for semantics, but, if anything, “pirate” is actually too harsh a term. The word comes from the Greek “piera”, which is a cognate to the word “peril”. Meaning that you should associate the word “pirate” with the phrase “this man is probably going to murder me for my goods.” Not so much “this man didn't want to shell out fifteen bucks for the new Grizzly Bear record."

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as “any criminal acts of violence, detention, or depredation committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or aircraft that is directed on the high seas against another ship, aircraft, or against persons or property on board a ship or aircraft.” Part of the problem with this terminology is romanticism on the part of the perpetrators. People think “pirates” and they immediately conjure up fetishized images of mischief and mayhem on the high seas, of opportunities to wear a three-cornered hat and breeches without being roundly teased and harassed. But if you go to a place like the Somali Coast, you'll find actual, real-life pirates, armed with machetes, semi-automatic pistols, and rocket launchers. I can just about guarantee anybody that these modern brigands of the high seas were most assuredly not inspired by Johnny Depp's semi-homoerotic buffoonery. They don't dance around fires and sing songs about being very bad eggs. Most of the time they don't say anything beyond “for the next 45 days, until we get our money, you and your crew are hostage. No sudden moves or we'll slice you up good.”

The point is, The RIAA is correct. The term “pirate,” now evocative of a certain misguided bathos, is not exactly the sobriquet that one should apply to college kids trolling for Mediafire files. It's a simple point-and-click job. Media “piracy” involves very little peril, and, according to the internet, the practice has caused zero casualties to date.

However, the RIAA is not exactly innocent of violence their own selves. I'm not talking about videotaped beheadings or drive-by shootings. There are looser definitions of violence. Beyond physical force meant to cause harm, violence is a word that can be applied to injury by distortion, infringement and profanation, which acts the RIAA has committed in spades.

Take the above quotation regarding the unbearable financial strain that music theft causes. The first “victims” they mention are the artists, musicians, and songwriters. This is no accident. The RIAA wants you, the consumer, to believe that when you download music illegally you are stealing from the very artists whose blood, sweat, tears, and various other bodily fluids were excreted in order to create the entertainment you enjoy. They know that you're going to be much more sympathetic to the bands you love than some cigar-chomping, Porsche-driving dickweed in a three piece suit who probably can't even play the cowbell, and yet gets to dictate which music reaches the masses. At the end of that list of victims, they mention “record label employees” - as opposed to “executives.” “Employees.” As if maybe the word will conjure up the image of some poor intern who might lose his job running an orange mocha frappuccino to David Geffen's office, all because people don't like paying for MP3s.

But let's please not bullshit each other. The people that stand to lose the most cash as a result of illegal downloading are the bigwigs of the Music Industry. And you know what? That's more than fine with me. Even the Judas goats that skulk around the hallways of the Capitol Records building need to pay the bills. The thing that makes all of the record companies' weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth seem far-fetched and insulting is the fact that these people are grubbing for your cash in the name of the artists that they exploit and stifle on a daily basis.

Musicians make most of their money from concerts and merchandise – not record sales. On a major label, an artist will make something in the area of 1 dollar per album sold – and we're talking about high profile acts. According to reports, when A Tribe Called Quest were all over MTV and moving tons of units, they were still forced to live at home with their parents. Not exactly an episode of “Cribs” that you'd want to watch.

Furthermore, if an artist's vision is going to be stymied against his or her will, it's more than likely going to be at the hands of one of these major labels. In the mid-sixties, Capitol Records seriously considered permanently shelving Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's magnum opus which, by Paul McCartney's own testimony, was the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ever heard of it? Only through Wilson's uncompromising tenacity was the album eventually released. But think about it - one of the greatest records in Pop/Rock history was almost quarantined to a storage closet somewhere in Los Angeles. Can you imagine a world without “God Only Knows”? A world without “A Day In The Life”?

When the RIAA acts as though they are the gallant White Knight, out to preserve the livelihood of those whom they continually hinder, it is unmitigated distortion. When the RIAA or similar associations drag individuals or organizations like The Pirate Bay to court, the word “compensation” is never followed by the words “for the artists.” For example, when MP3.com settled with the RIAA for a cool 158 million, no musician was compensated one red cent. Follow the teachings of Chuck D regarding hype, and how you should not believe that thing. Record labels are not out to save the musicians. They're out to get some stacks of that paper. And they'll get it in any way they can.

Like spying, for instance. Inspired, no doubt, by The Patriot Act, the RIAA thinks that it's perfectly acceptable to hire the services of MediaSentry, a company of computer-bound private eyes that get paid to snoop around your IPS and check if you have any pirated entertainment. MediaSentry's watchdogs scan thousands upon thousands of IP addresses, much like the G-Men who tap your phones and dredge through your e-mails. There's not much difference between how the RIAA operates and the security tactics that helped make George W. Bush one of the most reviled presidents in American history. They both shrug off the need for obtaining a proper search warrant and simply search through your files the way a good friend might go digging in your fridge for beers. And they both operate in a weird liminal space between legality and actus reus, violating moral and ethical laws to enforce laws of the land.

The stark dissimilarity is that The Patriot Act, like it or lump it, was at least drafted under the auspices of protecting innocent lives from future terrorist attacks in a post-9/11 world. However, when the RIAA engages in snarky-ass espionage to track down individual downloaders and severely punish them in court, one has to ask “what is the point to all of this?”

I'm not speaking of the punishment itself. The laws are clear. Music piracy is illegal. But when the RIAA takes a single mother like Jammie Thomas-Rasset to court and demands 1.92 million dollars in recuperative fees, do they really think they're going to get that money? Even when they eventually haggled down the punitive costs to 222 thousand dollars, how likely is it that the defendant is going to be able to produce that kind of cash? Not very. In fact, the punishment is wildly disproportionate to the actual damages. Frankly, it's something out of Camus.

The only rationale that can be derived from such unproductive efforts is that the RIAA wants the common downloader to see them as some kind of omnipresent Thought Police, that could come at any time and subject whoever they want to ridiculous economic strife. In other words, the RIAA wants to bully and scare people into compliance with copyright law. This is called infringement. Not in the sense of infringing upon laws and statutes, but upon general decency. It is a violation of all civility to browbeat people into compliance, a severe moral infraction. Fortunately, it is a practice that has become very unpopular with the people. When the RIAA tacks illegal downloads to collegiate IP addresses and asks for the names of the violators, they are roundly denied. Attorney Generals are beginning to describe subpoenas against individual file-sharers as “overbroad and burdensome.” With no one to back them, the RIAA has quietly discontinued such practices. But that doesn't mean they recognized the wrongs they were committing. Merely they recognized that they were no longer going to get any aid in committing them.

Not to get sentimental or anything, but it is by this general modus operandi of distortion and infringement, that great profanation is committed against the general notion of music. To watch the RIAA utilize any sneaky, ethically-questionable tactic just to get their fists on money that they really don't deserve – 80 thousand dollars for Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar on Me” - is akin to seeing mangy stray dogs fight and snarl over rotten meat. Frederich Nietzsche once wrote that, without music, life would be a mistake. The RIAA, however, seems to want to make music a question of property, of money to be grabbed in both fists and snatched from the people who create it and the people who enjoy it. For the hellhound lobbyists working to promote their sick sense of priority, without music, life would mean less money.

It's not the kind of violence that produces blood and breaks bones. It's not the kind of violence that ends lives. But the methods and motivations of the RIAA create a kind of violence that is more subtle than physical pain. It makes indentured servants of the musicians they claim to support, by taking the lion's share of proceeds made from an album's sales and leaving the artist with a dollar per unit, and, if they're lucky, some fool's gold shaped like an LP to hang on the wall of their parent's basement. It assumes an Orwellian-style position to coerce frightened consumers to not download. It causes stress and sleepless nights to the unfortunate souls who end who in debt to the tune of millions because they wanted to “November Rain” without having to buy “Use Your Illusion I” for fifteen dollars. Mostly, though, it attempts to shift the paradigm, change our beliefs in the purpose of music. From everything that the RIAA does, it would appear that the purpose of music is to trick people in handing their hard earned cash over to record executives. They are correct and the money to be made from music is more important than the joy it brings to the human heart, then why not keep albums on as background noise, consuming melodies and harmonies the way we sometimes mindlessly shove hamburgers down our gullets?

“Pirate” may be the wrong word for those who download illegally. But it's the exact correct word for the RIAA. And if you put Mitch Bainwol, Hilary Rosen and the rest of their lobbyist thug friends in a line-up with four illegal downloaders and ask me “which group acts like Blackbeard the most,” I will know exactly who to point at.

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