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Comments, Questions, Concerns: RIAA CEO Reflects On Responses To His New York Times Op-Ed

February 23, 2012

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to write comments in response to my op-ed in the New York Times on February 8th.  I read them all (yes, really) and, not only were there many thoughtful and constructive comments, but the totality provided a diverse array of opinions that were interesting to consider and understand.

I obviously cannot respond to each of the many comments, but a number of common themes seemed to emerge from them, so I thought it might be useful to convey some thoughts in response.

1.    Some comments reflect out-of-date criticisms about the entertainment industry’s transition to digital.

As Larry from California commented, “These companies MUST start to work out how they can continue to be successful in the new and evolving world, rather than trying to make it go back to the way it was.”  We couldn’t agree more and, in fact, we’ve already done just that.

I can’t speak for other industries, but I believe no industry has transformed itself as much as the music industry.  More than 50% of our revenues now come from digital formats.  We have more licensed services (Amazon, iTunes, Muve Music, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and more) than any other content industry and more ways in which content is offered lawfully to consumers.  Obviously, we have an enormous stake in the success of the Internet – it is our future.

2.    Some comments reflect a misunderstanding of the current marketplace.

As for industry policies in the new digital marketplace, again I can only speak for music.  I was surprised to see comments that suggest that music labels use DRM to constrain customers’ use of music they purchase when record companies abandoned DRM many years ago (as commenter Dave from Wisconsin pointed out) to make it easier for consumers to use their music on the platforms they want, where they want.  More generally, I should note that issues like these are the marketplace at work, as companies try to figure out how to retain the value of their products while at the same time providing consumers what they want.  Music labels have experimented with an extraordinary array of business models to try to find the “sweet spot,” and are still working on it every day.  Regardless, we simply cannot accept that because someone may disagree with the way certain products are offered in the marketplace, it’s okay to steal them instead.

I was surprised at the number of people who are still raising questions about whether piracy is actually causing harm.  Sure, piracy isn’t going to be the only reason for the industry’s decline in sales, but it certainly is the most obvious and significant explanation.  And, as Professor Stan Liebowitz found in a recent paper, virtually every academic study has independently confirmed that piracy has had an adverse effect on the music industry.  Or consider this if you want to discount the precipitous decline in music revenue figures during the last decade:  there are fewer self-identified musicians (according to Bureau of Labor Department statistics) today than 10 years ago.

3.    A lot of comments focused on copyright itself, and the term of protection in particular.

I’m not sure this is the forum or occasion to debate that issue, especially because it misses the point.  As journalist and author Rob Levine put it:

The real problem with copyright is not that it legally lasts 70 years – it’s that it actually lasts 7 minutes. Albums are available illegally online as soon as they’re released – if not before. The protection creators are supposed to enjoy has become largely theoretical.

Of course, there are some who insist on arguing that existing copyright law has become overbearing.  But how can the laws be overbearing when they are utterly incapable of responding to offshore pirate sites that even SOPA/PROTECT IP opponents acknowledge are a problem?  In truth, copyright nowadays offers little real protection, particularly when we have no tools at hand to deal with those who operate beyond the reach of our law.  This was exactly what the legislation was trying to address.

4.    Civic engagement online is wonderful.

To those who made themselves well informed and read neutral summaries of the bills and made sure to understand the perspective and arguments of all sides, kudos.  That is civic engagement at its best, and that the Internet enabled those voices to be heard is one of its greatest attributes.  But realistically, did all of the seven million+ people who reportedly signed the Google petition do that?  I suspect that in this case, many simply placed their faith in others.

And the larger implications of this kind of campaign are already being felt.  As reported in the New York Times recently, the boisterous (and often personal) attacks in the anti-SOPA campaign have caused members of Congress to rethink their involvement in important – and completely unrelated – cybersecurity legislation.  As The Times notes, the bills “do not regulate the Internet” and are merely intended to “help secure the nation’s nuclear plants, water systems and other essential infrastructure from hackers and terrorists.”  This is an important topic that deserves congressional action based on studied and accurate debate.  Fear of acting based on PROTECT IP/SOPA backlash raises serious concerns.

If the Internet is to be the force for good we all want, it is imperative for everyone to treat information and facts responsibly.  And no one has more responsibility than those companies that are the strongest influencers on the net.  I called out Google and Wikipedia in particular because they are among our most respected sources of neutral information.  If they don’t set an example for distinguishing between opinions and facts, how can we expect others to do so?

5.    A number of comments reiterated many of the complaints about the flaws in SOPA and PROTECT IP, as if the legislation were still viable.

Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my piece – I wasn’t trying to defend the specific legislation; as we’ve said all along, no legislation is perfect and our basic view was to work with anyone who wanted to construct a meaningful, effective answer to this emerging threat.  The point of my op-ed was that those bills were killed by a campaign largely based on misinformation about what they actually said and did.  So, it was especially disappointing to see the same misimpressions conveyed in a number of the comments.

It’s not worth belaboring the point extensively because I suspect, for many of us, we will simply have to agree to disagree.  But a couple of quick examples:  by the time the blackout occurred on January 18th, most of the controversial provisions had either been removed or completely changed.  For example, the Chairmen of both the Senate and House Committees had already announced that DNS blocking would be taken out in Managers’ Amendments, yet a number of the comments continued to refer to that provision to explain their opposition.  Similarly, the Manager’s Amendment to SOPA in the House addressed many, if not most, of the concerns expressed by tech companies and Internet experts (such as including on page 2 a broad “No duty to monitor” provision covering all parties, not just payment network providers and advertisers), yet many of the criticisms described in the comments were based on earlier versions of the legislation that were off the table.  A number of commenters held Wikipedia up as providing comprehensive information about the legislation, but even Wikipedia missed, or simply chose to ignore, many of these changes (for example, saying on its information page, “SOPA would require Wikipedia to actively monitor every site we link to” despite the “No duty to monitor” provision in the Manager’s Amendment).

And that is what bothered me about what happened: the debate and the process itself came to an abrupt end not because of a fundamental disagreement of principle, but because of incomplete and often completely incorrect information and inaccurate claims.  The debate on these issues is not over, and on certain issues we may never agree.  But my simple hope is that those disagreements will be based on fact, because that will be the first step towards finding sensible solutions.

In the end, neither side has a monopoly on truth and righteousness.  So even though I take others to task for misinformation, I don’t mean to imply in any way that my side shouldn’t also be held responsible for our missteps. 

Skepticism is a healthy and useful thing.  It is good to question.  But that posture should apply universally to all sources of information.  The technology companies that turned their platforms into engines of advocacy did so because it was in their business interests.  I don’t have a problem with them looking out for their economic interests, but technology companies have an obligation to make sure that readers and users get straight facts and understand that this is about business, not idealistic values.  

The fact is, content and tech need each other.  Our futures are intertwined.  And we must find a much better way to communicate with each other, respectfully and constructively.  I will certainly do my part to reach out to those on the other side, and I hope others will too, so that we’ll learn from the mistakes of the past and work together to make the Internet better for everyone.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment and offer your perspective.   


Cary Sherman, Chairman & CEO, RIAA