Unintended Consequences

Hosted by

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Gnarls Barkley had to rush-release their new album, to avoid having it leaked on the web. In fact, so did The Racounteurs. And EMI invited some of their biggest retail customers to a Coldplay listening-party, but confiscated all the Blackberrys and cellphones before the guests were allowed in the room.

Welcome to the new record business. If you think the business is in trouble now, just wait. In the next couple of years, labels and digital outlets will be swimming in court cases involving copyright infringement.

So here's a tip for all you go getters. If you want to make it in the music industry, get your law degree. You'll be guaranteed work for the next few decades. Recognizing talent is great, but recognizing infringement can be just as profitable.

The current copyright laws are just not adequate for the multitude of new uses in the digital age. And until the laws are expanded to include these new practices, lawsuits will abound.

And for good reason. Statutory damages for each willful copyright infringement carry penalties of up to $150,000. That can add up quickly when considering an album of ten tracks.

There are numerous cases every day being filed for copyright infringement. With over 80,000 released just this year, and an infinite number of websites carrying music, you can imagine the legal entanglements.

But one of the most interesting lawsuits going through the courts right now is the one between the Recording Industry Association of America and Project Playlist. Last month, the RIAA sued online site Project Playlist for copyright infringement. The website aggregates song hyperlinks from other websites. Project Playlist is, in essence, a music-link search engine. So, for example, I represent the label, One Little Indian. With permission from the artist, I might give a blogger access to an MP3 file of a track, in advance of that artist's release. I'll embed the MP3 in my label's website, and give the blogger a secret link to it. Anyone who reads that blog can listen to the track. This kind of promotional effort is standard operating procedure for record labels.

So now, without my permission, Project Playlist scoops up my secret website link as part of their search engine. And like Yahoo or Google, they point users to where the link is.

And Project Playlist goes one step further. Once you find music you like on their site, they let you create your own playlist with your favorite songs. So, in essence, you are making your own on-demand radio station.

This is exactly what most record labels do not want. It's one thing to have access to a free track or two, but it's a completely different matter if users are able to program their own virtual radio station.

Project Playlist isn't alone. There are a number of other "disruptive" new online services being challenged in the court system right now.

At the end of the day, the folks who will really benefit from these cases will not be sweating on stage, or touring the country in a passenger van. More likely, they'll be earning their triple-digit hourly fee, building cases for the court.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.