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Commentary: Will RIAA help kill off a dying format?

Posted: 08 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:home computers? Blu-ray? HD DVD?

The Washington Post had to back off of a Dec. 30 story in which it claimed that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was extending its lawsuit strategy to home computer users who "ripped" a CD into MP3 format and stored the songs on a computer.

Techdirt pointed out Wednesday (Jan. 2) that defendant Jeffrey Howell of Scottsdale, Ariz., had placed the files in a shared folder intended for Kazaa use. RIAA claimed this provided circumstantial evidence that he intended to share the music illegally. Moreover, RIAA seeks to create a distinction between "unauthorized" use and "illegal" use, while insisting it can go after any use of a music file it deems unauthorized.

An attorney for Sony BMG was quoted in an earlier case as saying that ripping a CD to a disk is equivalent to "stealing one copy."

It's ironic that RIAA is busy splitting hairs just as year-end statistics for both audio CDs and high-definition DVDs show that physical formats for multimedia content may be dying on the vine. Variety magazine claimed a 21 percent drop in audio CD sales for the 2007 Christmas season over the previous year.

Meanwhile, the New York Times cited a study from Adams Media Research showing lackluster sales of both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats as customers elect to wait out the standards warsor simply bypass the physical disk in favor of movie downloads.

In the case of audio CDs, plenty of consumers consider the mere existence of a physical CD to be "old school," preferring instead to purchase music from iTunes in compressed file formats. We've argued in the past that the artwork and tangential benefits of a permanent copy would be lost if consumers turn solely to file-based multimedia.

But the problem doesn't end there. Unless audio fanatics can drive greater use of lossless compression standards like FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), the widespread use of MP3-compressed files will mean that poorer quality audio becomes the standard.

It's hard to discern what RIAA hopes to gain by expanding its legal strategy. Even if lawsuits never touch defendants who copy CDs solely for personal use, the Howell case in Arizona is worrisome. The reason is that RIAA's strategy threatens to accelerate the demise of the CD. If consumers want unified libraries of music on computers, why even bother purchasing CDs if legal rights are in flux? Why not simply grab all music from an iTunes monopoly, if not from a quasi-legal file server?

Of course, we could always aim for the "art object" aftermarket. Analog vinyl LPs have seen a boom in sales in recent years, driven in part by custom-made LP packaging. The audio CD market could easily take such a turn, and already has among touring musicians producing "special editions" for sale at concerts.

But the RIAA will not gain a dime in such a market, and its strategy for targeting profitable online file sales isn't much better.

- Loring Wirbel
EE Times

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