Record Industry Enlists Artists In Battle To Beat Net Piracy

Critics charge campaign to recruit big-name musicians actually targets controversial MP3 music format.

A music-industry trade-group is looking to draft into its ranks top rock-artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Mick Jagger and Tool as the most effective sharpshooters in the ongoing battle against piracy on the Internet.

Last month, the Recording Industry Association of America sent letters to scores of musicians, asking for their support in a campaign to educate the public about copyright in cyberspace. While it could not be confirmed, Lilith Fair founder McLachlan, Rolling Stone frontman Jagger, R&B-master Barry White and heavy-metalers Tool are said to have expressed interest in the effort, according to the RIAA.

"It's really premature to talk about how they'll get involved," said Joe Flatow, vice president for government affairs and artist relations for the RIAA. "At this stage it's more like, 'Yes, I'm interested; yes, piracy is bad; and let me know where I can help.' "

Meanwhile, opponents of the campaign are crying foul, saying the movement unfairly links the legitimate concern of piracy with the controversial music format known as MP3s and is therefore misleading.

Flatow maintained, however, that the letter was designed to bring awareness of violations to musicians' attention, not as a public statement on MP3s.

"This [letter] is part of an ongoing effort to make sure that artists in the greater music community know what the issues are out there, what the copyright issues are that involve technology," Flatow said Thursday (Oct. 15). According to Flatow, the group must first educate the artists themselves before artists can educate the public.

The organization's plan to enlist the help of musicians is still in its infancy, he added, explaining that some might agree to record public-service announcements while others agree to sign letters supporting copyright-law enforcement. In addition, Flatow said the target of the campaign is music piracy on the Net in general, not specific song formats such as MP3s or their players.

During the past year, the MP3 sound-file has become an increasingly popular way to transfer songs in near-CD-quality over the Internet. Critics such as the RIAA, however, charge that MP3s invite music fans to distribute songs on the Net free of charge without authorization. Last week, the RIAA went to court to block the sale of a new portable device, called a Rio, which will allow MP3 users to play the song files away from their computers.

Michael Robertson, president of the popular "MP3.com" website, said he salutes any campaign to educate music fans about copyright issues but that the RIAA's letter to musicians misleads them by using terms of piracy and MP3 interchangeably.

"In one fell swoop, they're [attacking] not only Internet piracy but the MP3 movement as a whole," said Robertson, whose site offers 2,400 fully legal songs in the MP3 format. "I think that's a conscious effort by them, because they would like MP3s to be painted with the Internet piracy brush."

Robertson pointed to a paragraph in the RIAA's recruitment letter that does not distinguish between legal and illegal MP3s, thus suggesting any use of the format violates copyright.

"We recently discovered an MP3 site which contained your most recent release," reads the letter, of which SonicNet Music News obtained a copy. "As you may know, MP3 sites offer full-length sound-recordings that are easily downloadable, for free. ... We are asking you to please lend your name and thoughts to our campaign to educate the public about the growing threat of Internet piracy, specifically MP3 sites."

"Nowhere are they suggesting that there are commercial MP3 businesses out there or the great applications for MP3," Robertson said. "In fact, quite the opposite is insinuated."

To what degree artists will sign onto a Net-piracy campaign remains to be seen, but several artists have already expressed their concern on the issue.

Earlier this year, more than 300 musicians -- including South Carolina pop-artists Hootie and the Blowfish and the Grateful Dead singer/guitarist Bob Weir -- signed a letter in support of Congressional efforts to enforce copyright law on the Internet.

"You have to reward the people [who] have put in the hours and the manpower to make an act successful," said Rusty Harmon, manager for Hootie, whose latest album, Musical Chairs, includes the song "Answer Man" (RealAudio excerpt). "By downloading from the computer you're bypassing all that."

Longtime Grateful Dead and Other Ones publicist Dennis McNally said that distributing studio-recorded songs over the Net is a different matter than Deadheads trading concert tapes. "If you have slaved away on an artistic creation, and someone decides that it would be amusing to offer it to people, either for money or not, without your authorization, one should oppose that. The Internet is new legal ground, and it's got to be coped with."

Representatives for most of the artists listed in the RIAA's solicitation letter could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for McLachlan, however, said she had not heard of the singer's participation in an anti-piracy campaign.

"To my knowledge she doesn't have anything to do with it," Colleen Novak said. "Or [she may have said yes in] a flippant conversation that she doesn't even remember having."