The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) never slept on the issue of piracy. Billboard
reported in June 1997 that the group representing a majority of record labels was aware of sites offering songs online for free since the top of that year. That’s what sparked an RIAA lawsuit against three sites across the country including one called Fresh Kutz (an amazing name), which was ultimately settled out-of-court in 1998
. Obviously, these sites weren’t equipped to take on the entire recording industry, but just to make that starkly clear, the RIAA was seeking $100,000 for each illicit recording on the site. If anyone can send me a report that assigns the lifetime value of a single recording at about $100,000, my email is email@example.com
Hillary Rosen, then president and CEO of the RIAA, at the time revealed the overriding reasoning for such an absurd case via a press statement
The RIAA has drawn a line in cyberspace. We will not tolerate unauthorized reproduction and distribution of recorded music on the Internet. While we decided to forgo collecting damages from these defendants, that may not be the norm in the future. After this first round of suits, people are now on notice that their actions may have serious consequences…Whether or not for commercial profit, these music archive sites hurt artists, record companies, musicians and everyone else involved in the creative process who depend on royalties to earn a living.
The goal wasn’t to collect money or properly assess the value of the music that might’ve been downloaded, but rather to simply instill fear in anyone who thought about repeating the actions of these websites. Bands were already using the internet to communicate with fans by 1997, but in this same issue of the publication, Billboard
included a quote
about efforts going on at Sony regarding the use of the internet:
In addition, Sony is close to beginning direct sales of hundreds of its releases to consumers via the internet and is preparing the introduction of a pay-per-play online jukebox that will test the commercial viability of Internet-delivered music programming.
While Sony and the rest of the internet were attempting to figure out how to make the industry work in a digital space, the RIAA continued to launch lawsuits. The most notable one was filed against Napster in early December 1999
due to copyright infringement for a total of $20 billion, a number again calculated at $100,000 for each piece of copyright-infringing material. At that point, the website only had 50,000 users—mostly college students—but the publicity of the entire record industry putting its weight on a single website boosted its awareness. Napster peaked at around 26.4 million users in February 2001, an over 50,000% increase. All press can, indeed, be good press.
Needless to say, the RIAA’s lawsuit against Napster broke the company along with a number of other factors typical to entrusting any
amount of money in the hands of people barely out of high school, as is the norm, bizarrely, in Silicon Valley. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lawsuits
would continue to be filed against the likes of Aimster, AudioGalaxy, Morpheus, Grokster, iMesh, Kazaa, LimeWire, and Scour. Ultimately, none of this stopped piracy and by the mid-2000s, the CD bubble burst, the iTunes store was launched, and Myspace and YouTube were about to enter the picture… so a new target needed to be found for this litigious industry.