Music Copyright and Public Relations, an Uphill Battle with the Occasional Easy Target: Rogue Digital Music Stores

Tom Gertner is a first year JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and currently enrolled in the course Law & Social Change: Law & Music, in Winter 2011. As part of the course requirements, students are asked to write a blog on a topic of their choice.

It is inherently difficult for record labels and collectives to garner public support while enforcing music copyright.  Their actions take place in an industry where artists and fans have traditionally resisted and rebelled against the monetization of the works central to it.

Artists in interviews consistently bemoan the big business of major record labels, accusing record labels of controlling their music in order to make it more accessible to a commercial audience. Fans and music critics in turn seize on artists who commit the ultimate faux pas of “selling out”, ostracizing them for embracing their work as a commercial product. Collectives and record labels haven’t helped their own cause in choosing some targets that don’t play well to journalists or the public.  US record labels for instance in going after file sharers for statutory damages created David vs. Goliath tales that despite the inherent wrong in stealing music the public simply couldn’t get behind. Collectives in the same vein have caught bad press for targeting already wounded mom and pop businesses as well as non profits.  

Recently, the recording industry zoned in on what from a PR perspective is an ideal target, illegal Eastern European MP3 services.  These rogue mp3 services charge less than their legitimate competitors because they pay little to no royalties as a result of loose domestic copyright law and disorganized domestic collectives. They also have the ability to offer the songs of artists such as Garth Brooks, AC-DC, and Tool whose works are unavailable on legitimate services like iTunes.  It seems unlikely that the public would decry shutting down rogue retail mp3 services. These sites already engage in the commercialization of music, and as a result the recording industry can sidestep any debates on the commercialization of music or romantic notions of free digital music.  Record label representative group the IFPI have come up with a new strategy that will attempt to starve these rogue music sites of the majority of their revenue.

With the help of major credit card providers Visa and Mastercard the IFPI will try to limit these sites access to online payment plans. The group will submit complaints of online rogue mp3 services to the London police department who will examine the nature of these sites. The London Police department will then pass their analysis on to major credit card providers MasterCard and Visa. Industry groups along with state organizations like the USTR will also continue to apply international pressure on the countries that host these services. A strategy that on its own has led to several gains, including the shutting down of Russian site AllofMP3, and a recent agreement between the Ukraine and the US to combat leading rogue service MP3Fiesta.  

Shutting down these sites could certainly pay dividends to record companies and legitimate online music services. The consumers attracted to these sites are willing to pay for music and desire the ease of delivery brought by retail music websites. Unfortunately, for the music industry going after rogue mp3 services is only a small sector of copyright infringement, and the industry will continue to have to fight not only copyright infringement, but also their negative perception by the public for doing so.