Oct. 31, 2007
By Stephen McKean | Photos by Rick Fatica
In an effort to plumb the depths of the often-shrill debate over unauthorized file sharing, Ohio University's Office of Information Technology hosted a panel discussion Tuesday featuring heavy hitters from all sides of the controversy, including the voice of the Recording Industry Association of America and a founding member of Jefferson Airplane.
"P2P File Sharing: A 360° Perspective" drew some 300 audience members to Baker University Center Ballroom and additional viewers who watched via streaming video and posed questions in a live chat room.
Brice Bible, the university's chief information officer, kicked off the event, an idea that stemmed from this year's controversial prelitigation campaign on college campuses. The RIAA mounted that effort to stem copyright infringement against recording-industry artists. The campaign cost students serious money and forced universities -- by virtue of being students' Internet service providers -- to invest hundreds of hours and re-examine policies about open networks.
Assistant Professor of Telecommunications Eddie Ashworth, an independent record producer, took what was perhaps the most centrist position of the two-and-a-half-hour conversation. While not endorsing illegal file-sharing, he said the RIAA's aggressive legal actions "have been a public relations disaster." He suggested the industry find more innovative ways to "turn (file sharers) into paying customers" and cited research that disputed key industry claims that file sharing has hurt revenues.
Vijay Raghavan, director of Digital Freedom University, also was at odds with many of the RIAA's practices. While acknowledging that "stealing music is wrong," he said innovations and technological improvements lead to new opportunities. He warned against "a backlash against new technology."
But the message of RIAA Director of Communications Jonathan Lamy, an Ohio University graduate, was unbending: File sharing of copyrighted music is illegal and is harming the recording industry. "We are an industry that is hemorrhaging jobs, and money, and people," Lamy said, contending that nine out of 10 music file-shares are illegal.
In general agreement with Lamy were the musicians on the panel: Nashville songwriters Bob Regan (who preceded his remarks with a song he wrote for Keith Urban) and Stewart Harris, and Southeast Ohio's own Jorma Kaukonen (of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame). All three musicians made the point that it's not the rich and famous who are punished by illegal downloading, but rather songwriters, session musicians and recording engineers.
Rejecting what he perceived to be a new kind of moral relativism, Harris (who has written hit songs for Waylon Jennings, Reba McIntyre, and Travis Tritt), said, "You wouldn't go into a Tower Records and shoplift, but that's what we're doing."
Panelist and Student Senate President Timothy Vonville, on the other hand, characterized the RIAA's stance as overkill, saying that the prelitigation strike was conducted in an underhanded manner and amounted to profiling, considering that college students are not the biggest offenders -- just easy to target.
"If an individual is partial to a downloaded song, they will go and buy the actual hard copy ... thus negating the harmful impact of the individual act," Vonville said.
The event was capped with a question and answer session. Fittingly, many of the questions were submitted via an Internet chat room created specially for the occasion. The audience also used the chat room to comment on the discussion as it ensued.
Not surprisingly, the questions -- though respectful for the most part -- reflected frustration with what the students perceived as the record companies' intransigence. Some brashly pronounced their intention to continue downloading, and none expressed sympathy for the RIAA.
Afterward, audience members engaged the panelists individually. Perhaps not surprisingly, Raghavan, the downloading advocate, was surrounded by students who wished to commiserate.
Panelists, organizers and audience members alike expressed appreciation for the opportunity to discuss the topic, one that undoubtedly will be the subject of conversations that extend well into the future. "I really appreciated the comments from all of the panelists," Bible said. "There were a lot of different opinions represented."
Some additional thoughts shared by Tuesday's panelists:
"'... authors and inventors (have) the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries...'"
-- Bob Regan, songwriter, quoting Article I, section 8, of the Constitution of the United States
"(As to) whether some of the penalties that are coming down to these illegal downloaders are draconian, from my point of view they certainly seem to be; but obviously I believe something has to be done. And what is it? I haven't the slightest idea."
-- Jorma Kaukonen, musician
"The adage that the customer is always right has never been more true than it is in this situation. The industry needs to return to being a more customer and artist-friendly business."
-- Eddie Ashworth, assistant professor of telecommunications
"Copyright law is a real thing, and we have all completely lost track of it."
-- Stewart Harris, songwriter
"If the digital download market had been embraced by the recording industry, there would have been more of an alternative and there would have been more of an understanding that there are available places to legally digitally download music."
-- Vijay Raghavan, director, Digital Freedom University
"Why is it that people who are downloading this free music ... (don't) understand about artists' rights and copyrights and trademarked music?"
-- Vanessa Kaukonen, owner and CEO, Fur Peace Ranch
"From the industry perspective, (downloading) has meant thousands and thousands of layoffs. These are real people who are out of work, so it's not a victimless crime."
-- Jonathan Lamy, director of communications, RIAA