Privacy or policy: where does it end?

The Recording Industry Association of America filed suit against peer-to-peer, file-sharing company LimeWire in June. A trial is set for Jan. 18, which if the RIAA wins, it will strike a serious blow in the continuing fight for privacy rights in America.

The concepts of privacy rights and individual liberty, so tacitly etched into the Constitution, makes possible, that anyone might be virtuous while simultaneously maintaining a reasonable degree of privacy.

That was in 1776. Today, these very same principles have turned on us, biting the hands of those that drafted them.

The RIAA oversees and promotes the vitality of 13 major music labels. They remained legally quiet up until the Internet provided a way for file sharing entities such as Napster, Kazaa, LimeWire and FrostWire to topple album sales.

In December 1999, the RIAA began its hunt for copyright infringers with the file sharing company Napster. Piracy, as it was described by the RIAA, “would curtail album sale revenues,” and lead to the demise of the music industry; a slippery slope, indeed.

This statement would become the base for some 30,000 subpoenas issued by the RIAA to P2P distributors, internet service providers and individuals between 2003 and 2008-even though a 2002 survey conducted by the Forrester Research Group revealed, “that digital music downloads were not to blame for an alleged decrease in album sales.” Nevertheless, with the courts on their side, the RIAA forced Napster to adopt legal file sharing practices.

The RIAA has shamelessly pursued individuals, which include the most unlikely suspects. Jamie Thomas-Rassett, a Minnesota single mother of two, was the first person to be convicted by a court of claims brought forth by the RIAA. In the first ruling of this case made by a lower court, Thomas-Rassett was ordered to pay $1.92 million. This settlement was reduced to $54,000 after a successful appeal in a federal court ($2250 per song).

Rulings in favor of the RIAA could result in awards up to $150,000 per song, per individual. However, many of these cases quickly settled for much smaller amount — just tens of thousands.

The “strong-arming” didn’t stop there. Jesse Jordan, who at the time was a student at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, was also targeted by the RIAA but settled out of court for a mere $17,500.

Cases like Jordan’s kicked off a new RIAA campaign in 2007, the College Deterrence Program, which targets college students who use illegal file-sharing programs. That year subpoenas were issued to 400 students at 13 schools and letters warning of the legal implications of file sharing were sent to college presidents across the country.

With no success the RIAA’s individual “witch-hunt” came to an end in 2008, but its attempts to thwart file sharing services continue.

As of late, the RIAA has tried to persuade some of America’s largest Internet service providers to join its effort to end copyright infringement on intellectual properties.

The proposed ‘graduated response’ system would implement a three-strike rule for individuals who download music illegally. After a person is caught trying to download music illegally for the third time, their Internet services would be discontinued. The RIAA has seen little cooperation from U.S. Internet service providers for fear that such ironclad restrictions would drive customers away.

As if the RIAA’s apathy for individual privacy rights couldn’t sink any lower, the organization hit an unprecedented mark in 2007. An Arizona judge ruled in favor of a paranoid claim made by RIAA lawyer Ira Schwartz that copying music from a purchased album to a personal computer is also piracy.

“Our goal is not to be vindictive or punitive,” Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, said in a 2003 statement. “It is simply to get peer-to-peer users to stop offering music that does not belong to them.”

Sherman’s notions would have been sound if the unsuccessful campaign to teach hard lessons to the most politically and economically inept among us hadn’t resulted in numerous frivolous settlements, which cost American taxpayers millions during the litigation process and produced less than desirable results for record companies.

What’s worse, the RIAA’s greedy lawyers should have known the outrageous claims the organization sought would eventually be thrown out by federal courts.

The law is the law and yes, piracy is illegal. However, if someone purchases a CD, copies it onto a personal computer and decides to share it with a friend or two, or more, it does not make them make them a criminal, or at least not one of great concern.

Furthermore, just because something is a law doesn’t make it a textbook example of positive law. Piracy is an example of such laws.

The RIAA continues to cook up more legally grounded moneymaking schemes to rip away individual privacy rights to boost album sales. A sad attempt considering iTunes attracts thousands of signed and unsigned artists annually. Not to mention that during the last decade the RIAA’s combined revenue has decreased by almost half according to its website, a sure sign of the rise of digital downloads, legal or not.

A 2004 Pew Research survey found that 1 in 6 Americans use P2P file sharing services; a number that continues to grow. With those numbers, boycotting the RIAA is not only the answer, but it may not even be necessary with technological innovations casting compact discs into extinction.

If that isn’t enough of a deterrent for the RIAA, “during the week ended May 30, the U.S. music industry sold a total of 4.98 million albums, the lowest number in decades,” according to Nielsen Soundscan.

Capitalism and privacy rights tend not to mesh in this country. Lobbyist groups like the RIAA that use capitalism and a crippled legal system to their advantage may be singing to a different tune now that Americans are getting rid of their CD players.