RIAA Targets Net Tape Traders In Ongoing War

Industry strong-arming of those dealing live recordings via Web has scared many into submission.

The Battle of the Net wages on.

The music industry, having previously targeted webmasters who offer unreleased,

downloadable material on their sites, has fired its latest protective

salvo in the ongoing Internet war between fans and record companies, this

time picking a new target -- the tape trader.

The particular trader in this case was a Bruce Springsteen fan who, at a

website hosted by Temple University, offered to copy unreleased

Springsteen concert recordings in return for $6 to cover the cost of blank

tapes and postage. In late December, the Recording Industry Association of

America -- a trade association that represents the six major record

companies and their subsidiaries -- ordered the school to remove the site,

which it did immediately.

According to Frank Creighton, the RIAA's vice president and associate

director for anti-piracy, the fact that the Temple trader offered his

collection on the Net was particularly disturbing.

"You're talking about the sound recording being offered to thousands, or

hundreds of thousands, or millions of people," Creighton said. "That

clearly goes beyond two next-door neighbors trading tapes because they're

fans of a particular band. It's getting much closer to that fine line

between commercial and non-commercial distribution for these sound

recordings."

When it comes to the rapidly exploding world of music on the Net, it's

sometimes hard to discern who is running more scared: A music industry

fearful of losing money through copyright violations, or music fans, who in

the promotion of their favorite artists have become fearful of incurring

the wrath of record companies.

Because the Net remains a relatively uncharted landscape, neither party has

fully sized-up the other yet, and to the casual observer, it might be difficult

to

paint one as David and the other Goliath. That, however, hasn't stopped

either side from claiming barraged underdog status for itself.

In tape-trading circles, the impact of the recent RIAA order was felt immediately

as fans rushed to post news of the bust on bootleg newsgroups. "The day

that the [RIAA] letter came, my list [of concerts] came off my website,"

said Flynn McLean, a 26-year-old Springsteen trader from Wheaton, Md., who

claimed to be a friend of the Temple trader. "I'm not offering any trades

on my site any more."

The recent action capped off an active year of Net-watching by the RIAA.

Earlier in December, the organization sent cease and desist letters to

several web hosts whose customers had posted audio files from the upcoming

Yield album by Pearl Jam on the websites. In June, the RIAA filed

lawsuits against the owners of three "archive sites," which hosted full-length,

high-quality

audio recordings by dozens of artists.

And while trading may have now raised more controversy for the industry,

the practice of taping and exchanging concert recordings has taken place

outside of cyberspace for decades. Typically, fans trade one concert for

another, or if

one trader has no concert to offer, two blank tapes for each concert tape.

Veteran traders with massive collections, like the Temple-based Springsteen fan,

often offer to trade for cash as a convenience to new traders, or "newbies."

Posting lists of tapes for trade on the Internet moves the hobby -- which

traditionally took place among collectors on a one-on-one basis, or through

classified ads in relatively small fanzines -- into a much larger realm.

Dave Asselin, 27, of Boston said explicitly on his concert tape

website that he doesn't trade in any fashion, be it concert-for-concert,

two-for-one or for money. Privately, however, he explained that in four

years he's built a collection of more than 400 unreleased Smashing Pumpkins

audio and video tapes.

Although Asselin calls the recent action by the RIAA "silly chest-puffing,"

he said he has witnessed its effects. "I can't even tell you how many

people they've scared into hiding their lists or pulling them off the Web,

which is exactly what they want to do. Fifteen or 20 people that I trade

with have pulled their pages off or changed the location."

The RIAA is more interested in halting transactions where money is exchanged for

recordings than traditional concert-for-concert trades, Creighton said.

"We do look into those situations. Typically in those situations what we like

to do is talk to our member companies about it, as well as the artists

themselves, to get a flavor for how concerned they are about those situations,"

he said. "In some cases, we might send a warning letter as opposed to a

strongly worded cease and desist letter. But don't let that confuse anybody --

the trading of the tapes would be considered technically illegal."

Although McLean said he has no intention of stopping his own trades, he

predicted that the RIAA warning will have a chilling effect that will be

felt most by newcomers looking to get into tape-trading. "I already have

the friends who I know and I've traded with before," he said. "The main

effect is that people are not going to be as willing to trade with newbies."

But in Asselin's view, the RIAA is grasping at straws. He called their

tactics "irrelevant" in the grassroots territory of cyberspace.

"The Internet changes the rules," he said. "They can't go out and bust a

distributor and cut off the supply of [bootleg] CDs or LPs to a large part

of the world. So they're trying to scare people into not trading this way.

But this is just temporary. People will forget all about this." [Wed., Jan. 14, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]