Record industry executives defended the practice of suing file-sharers to curb the illegal downloading of music and movies at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium Thursday night.
The panel, part of an Honors Symposium on digital piracy, came several days after a music industry trade group announced it would bring legal action against an unspecified number of GW students for illegally downloading music.
Matt Oppenheim, former senior vice president of Business and Legal Affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America, told the 100 people in attendance that file-sharing hurts everyone.
“Inventors and creators are the lifeblood of this country,” said Oppenheim, who was the lead lawyer in the case against Napster, a once-popular file-sharing network forced by lawsuits to charge its customers to download music and movies. “When sales are down, there’s less artists, less variety.”
“Who are we suing? Substantial uploaders,” he continued.
He said the definition of “substantial” has changed over time and that there is no cut-off number that allows file-sharers to escape litigation.
On Tuesday, the RIAA announced it would sue 89 file-sharers at 21 universities including GW, Georgetown University and the University of Maryland. GW officials said last week they have not formally received notification of the lawsuits, refusing to comment further about the litigation.
“We’re doing this in a fair, evenhanded way,” Oppenheim said, “while sending a message that this is wrong. The law on this is really quite clear. There is no defense.”
Philip Wiser, chief technology officer for Sony Music and a former musician, agreed with Oppenheim, saying, “We’ve lived in a legal vacuum too long.”
“KaZaA and Morpheus are making a lot of money with no investment, and it’s wrong,” said Wiser, referring to two popular file-sharing networks which do not charge customers to download media files. “I’ve given the pink slip to hundreds of people – people who’ve worked at Sony for 30 years – because people aren’t buying CDs.”
Wiser said the industry now has “services that meet the demands” of consumers who want to download music legally.
But Fred von Lohman, of the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the music industry’s online purchasing services are behind the free peer-to-peer networks in their range of offerings and user-friendliness.
“It’s years we’ve been waiting” for the industry to catch up, he said. “You don’t get there with restrictions and limited inventories.”
He proposed a voluntary collective licensing system in which copyright holders would put all of their songs into a pool that consumers would pay a fee to access. The money would be divided among artists and rights holders.
Avery Kotler, representing the new, legal Napster, said he was “trying to do what Fred asked for – create a fun, legal, safe system that compensates artists and makes you happy,” but noted that it’s “very hard to compete with free.”
The panel members took questions from the audience for about an hour. One student said she downloads music and buys CDs.
“You may be out there buying CDs, but there’s no question that people are downloading and not buying,” Oppenheim, of the RIAA, responded. “There’s been a 31 percent decline in sales the last three years – that’s over a billion dollars a year.”
Another student argued artists would create music with or without copyrights. “Maybe artists are not being threatened as much as record labels are … Beethoven didn’t have a record label,” he said.
“They’re letting the record companies be the bad guy,” said Oppenhein, who noted that “Beethoven was a pauper.”