In April 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced an unprecedented lawsuit against four college students for a combined amount of $98.7 billion. Their crime? Hosting a search engine on their dorm room computers.

The RIAA, a conglomerate of the most powerful and influential record companies in the world, from Sony to Time Warner and BMG, proudly declares a stranglehold on almost 90 percent of all “legitimate” music recorded and distributed in the United States.

With the rising tide of Internet sharing, largely by youth and students, the corporate puppet-masters behind this monopoly have begun to lash out. The multi-millionaires running the RIAA, and its cousin the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), contend that downloading free media will hurt artists and restrain creativity.

However, many students and activists have argued that the industry’s super-exploitation of artists and tight controls over who and what gets produced has usurped our common culture and driven many to file sharing networks for our entertainment.

Copyrights were originally designed during the industrial revolution to protect inventors’ ideas for seven years, after which they could be released for the benefit of the public. The drive to extract as much profit from this “ownership of ideas,” however, led to recent laws passed by the U.S. Congress that extend copyrights to the life of the author plus 75 years! The commodification of music rights has allowed companies in the RIAA to become the sole possessor of artists’ creations.

If an artist under contract to Sony writes a song, it is the property of Sony. If that song makes $1 million, it is all profit for Sony. In fact, many artists make less than one cent per track on a CD that sells for upwards of $20.

Did you know that if you work at a Blockbuster video store, any and all movie scripts you write while employed are considered the property of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp.?

But there is hope amid this madness of infinite copyrights and corporate exploitation. Many artists are creating their own record labels, free from RIAA control. In the face of corporate censorship, this “indie” rock has boomed across the Internet. Artists are also signing onto new copyright contracts like “Creative Commons” (www.creativecommons.org), which allows them to release their material into the public domain for all to enjoy.

Legal defense teams like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.com) have also pledged to defend artist and consumer rights against the corporate siege on digital media.

Ordinary consumers are fed up as well. A grassroots movement to boycott the RIAA (www.boycott-riaa.com) has been going strong for many years now. Their web site urges music lovers to download songs released by independent artists instead of buying RIAA CDs, in hopes that they can send a message: artists and fans across the country want their music back!

This September, the four college students sued by the RIAA for “facilitating” file swapping settled for amounts of around $15,000.

Meanwhile, the RIAA has stepped-up their reign of fear. On Sept. 8, corporate lawyers announced hundreds, possibly thousands, of pending lawsuits against mostly college-aged students for “loss of profits” due to file sharing. The suit that got the most press was the one filed against a 12-year-old New York girl. And, in the tradition of all good witch hunts, RIAA lawyers have announced “amnesty” for file swappers who sign a written confession, pledge to destroy all their copyrighted digital material, and use a photo ID to notarize their admission of guilt (www.musicunited.org).

The struggle against this blatant capitalist fear mongering is in full swing. Which side are you on?

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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