Screwing the Man

Electronic Robin Hoods claim music file-swapping is an act of civil disobedience

On February 20, or seven months later than promised, the five major music labels and some retailers began sending out checks for $13.86 to people who bought CDs from 1995 to 2000 and felt, Jeez, ya know, I paid too much for that CD. The checks are the result of a settlement reached in October 2002 as part of a class-action antitrust lawsuit in which it was alleged that EMI, WEA, UMG, BMG and Sony, as well as Tower Records and other stores, had conspired to fix the prices of CDs and sell the relatively cheap plastic at unreasonably high prices. The defendants all claimed they had done nothing wrong but agreed to pay out some $67 million nonetheless.

To get a check you should have filed a claim by March 2003; in other words, if you're only now learning about this, you are way too late. Not that it matters much, when you consider $13.86 is just enough to get you into most music stores but not enough to allow you to actually walk out with a new CD.

So Marc Freedman, a Dallas-based inventor of software that allows corporations and consumers to trade files over the Internet, has another option. He'd like you to take that check for $13.86, deposit it in your checking account, then turn around and make a PayPal donation to his new Web site, www.DonateMyMusicCheck.com, which debuted February 25 with the intention of collecting the contributions and passing them along to an organization dedicated to fighting the music industry. Get it? The record companies will be funding the very people out to get the record companies, in this case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that wages legal battle against the recording industry when it comes to issues of music-sharing, privacy and various other Web-related activities.

"This was a way to take advantage of this funky money the music industry took from us and is now giving back to us," says Freedman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad and founder of RazorPop, which sells its own peer-to-peer software. "As of this moment we're up to $250 in donations, so it's a good start. It's something that obviously takes a few weeks to get exposure before people get off their butts and join the program."

It's Freedman's way of sticking it to The Man, specifically the Recording Industry Association of America, which last September began suing and demanding money from people it alleges are illegally trading songs over the Internet. (Freedman also runs another Web site called www.DiaRIAA.com, the name of which should be pretty self-explanatory; on the site he's posted a handful of essays and a list of "the sins of the music industry.")

According to Jason Schultz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, most of the people being sued are 12-year-old girls or single parents, among them Austin resident Adelita Schule, the mother of a 5-year-old son who lives in a Section 8 housing authority apartment while trying to get her teaching certificate from the University of Texas. According to a letter written by Schule's pro bono attorney, she has $180 to her name, owes more than that for utility and daycare bills and "ekes out an existence" with financial aid, student loans and scholarships and has "no money left over for such 'luxuries' as auto repairs, health insurance and new clothing and shoes for her son." The RIAA has singled out Schule for, among other things, copyright infringement and is demanding $3,000 from her or else she'll be sued, fined and possibly jailed.

Actions like that have turned the Internet into a battleground for those on each side of the music-sharing issue. The RIAA, a lobbying organization that represents the major record labels, insists people who swap songs over KaZaA and other file-sharing software programs are thieves stealing from the pockets of hard-working musicians. The EFF and a host of other sites dedicated to eradicating the RIAA insist it's actually the labels that are stealing from musicians with crooked contracts. Freedman is among those who believe that file-sharing isn't a right, but an act of, you guessed it, civil disobedience. He and others like him will tell you it's better to take a few cents from musicians than give a few dollars to corrupt labels that overcharge for CDs and spend their profits paying radio stations to play their music.

"A lot of people don't see why they should continue to pay into a corrupt system," says Nicholas Reville, co-founder of the site Downhill Battle, which is part pragmatic and part prankster. You can donate money to a legal defense fund, which goes to people like Schule, or you can download CD warning labels that read, "Buying This CD Funds Lawsuits Against Children and Families," which you're supposed to stick on major-label discs in your nearby retailers.

"We feel the more people learn about how the music industry works, the less they want to do with it," Reville says. "I just got my check, and I don't know what I am doing with it yet. I think it's a great sort of symbol, something concrete where you can say, 'This is the way the majors have been manipulating the music business.' Donating it to the EFF is a perfect act. You're saying, 'We got back a little bit of what they are taking from us and are putting it toward an effort that can help consumers and bring about reforms to the system.' That's a great message to get to people. A lot of things we try to do at Downhill Battle is to get people to think where's the money coming from, where's it going and who's getting a piece of it along the way."

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