RIAA's Cary Sherman says lawsuits were the only option

Group's president says lack of legal alternatives and "logarithmic" growth in piracy forced music industry to act to protect sector from being "decimated."

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read
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Cary Sherman offers no apologies and won't for a second concede that filing lawsuits against people who pilfered digital music from artists was ineffective. On the contrary, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America makes a case that chasing file sharers into court was the only option in 2003, one of the darkest periods in the music industry's history.

"If you can go back to that time in your mind and remember that file sharing was growing at logarithmic pace," Sherman said referring to 2003, not long after file-sharing service Napster had triggered a music-swapping frenzy. "It was unbelievable how much infringement was going on and there was no sense that it was illegal. There were no legal cases or precedent, nothing to discourage people from this kind of behavior."

Sherman spoke to CNET News hours after The Wall Street Journal published a story on Friday about the RIAA's decision to end its five-year-long legal campaign against individuals who the group accused of pirating music. According to the Journal story, the RIAA opened legal proceedings against 35,000 people during that time. Those accused of stealing from the music industry include college students, businessmen, and single mothers. From now on, the group will rely on Internet service providers to help discourage people from sharing music illegally.

"Doing nothing was basically agreeing to watch your industry get totally decimated. It was a hard decision to make but it was one where there was no alternative."
--Cary Sherman, RIAA president

The top music labels are also trying to make music more easily accessible and cheaper to the public than ever with the help of ad-supported sites such as YouTube, iMeem, and MySpace Music. Apple's iTunes is now the biggest music retailer online and off.

But back in 2003, the RIAA was tasked with educating people about the illegality of downloading pirated music. The strategy was to create deterrents and remind people of the possibility that pirating music could land them in court.

"At that time we didn't have any parents engaged in deterring piracy," Sherman recalled. "We didn't have any digital marketplace to speak of. We had lost the Grokster case in the Circuit Court of Appeals. We appealed that decision to the Supreme Court and won. At that time, the ISPs were making money from piracy. They were almost advertising it 'Download what you want,' was the reason to buy broadband. And so doing nothing was basically agreeing to watch your industry get totally decimated. It was a hard decision to make but it was one where there was no alternative if we were going to establish the rules for digital music on the Web."

Sherman suggests that the stats vindicate the strategy.

In 2004, 19 percent of Net users were downloading music files from peer-to-peer sites, according to research group NPD. In 2007, NPD found the same percentage of users downloading songs. The RIAA acknowledges that even if that 19 percent of users has remained constant, that group of users is now downloading far more songs.

To support his argument that lawsuits were effective, Sherman also points to the meteoric growth in legal sales since the RIAA began taking file sharers to court. In 2004, digital music sales were $183.4 million or a little over 1 percent of the $12.3 billion in total music sales. For 2008, digital music sales are projected to be $3 billion or 30 percent of total music sales. The music industry couldn't have accomplished that had piracy been allowed to grow unchecked, Sherman said.

Representatives from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet-rights advocacy group, disagree.

"The announcement (about the end of the lawsuits) is long overdue," said Gwen Hinze, EFF's International policy director. "Our position is the recording industry hasn't achieved its goal of thwarting file sharing with litigation. We would like to see a better way to move forward and would rather see voluntary collective licensing."