The Lonely Fight: Defending Music “Pirates” Against the Big 4

Ushering in Music Industry's New Golden Age (Requirements: Fists, Bit Torrent)
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You really don’t want to F with Ray Beckerman.  Unless, that is, you’re one of the four major record labels (which, Ray will remind you, don’t count, given that they aren’t really, well, people, “no matter what the supreme court says”) in which case Fing with Ray Beckerman turns out to be something you spend a lot of time doing.  Ray, LLC, is a stocky New York “country lawyer” who has decided that he is going to make it his life’s mission to just drive Universal, Sony, BMG, Warner Brothers, and EMI as berzerk as one man can muster.  As the poor chap at this afternoon’s panel who had the misfortune of using the word “weasily” in reference to Beckerman’s legalize learned, Ray doesn’t cower from a fight.

Ray runs this blog, which is to say that he plays Atticus Fitch for college kids who do whatever it is that is the equivalent of “napster-ing” these days.  He finds people the major record labels sue for copyright infringement (“‘Piracy’” is a term of propoganda the major labels have been pushing for the last three years!” — yeah, he really talks this way), and then works to defend them.  Generally, these folks get some sort of notice that they are being sued and have one of two choices: settle for three or four thousand dollars, or spend several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees in order to fight a case they may or may not win.  Most cases are dropped, after the defendant’s lives have been made miserable for a while.  So far, the major labels have sued 40,000 individuals.

Ray thinks this is pretty screwed up, and he makes a compelling case.  For starters, there is no way for an ISP address to actually demonstrate proof of use.  That is, your mom pays the bill for the interweb, she gets the subpoena.  Or you don’t have a lock on your wireless account and your neighbor discovers that the new Taylor Swift is straight free (free!) on Kazaa, and you get sued.  You get the idea.  One of Ray’s current clients is a Latina home health aid who has doesn’t know how to turn on her computer. Also, ISP addresses are somehow “housed” in states where you may or may not live (don’t ask me how this functions, Word still confounds me).  Meaning that, say, if you live in San Francisco you get a subpoena for a case in Alabama, where whatever it is that makes your internet work lives, and have two days to find a lawyer in Alabama.  Only, Ray will tell you, it will be impossible for you to get the necessary documents to get to said Alabama lawyer within the 2 day deadline.  Point being: it’s a racket fit for Federrer.  All this amounts to what Ray calls “the war of the record labels against ordinary Americans.”

Now, the obvious question one might ask, particularly if one is attempting to make a living in the record industry, as one might be attempting if one were to be at the SXSW music festival and were one of the dozen or so people at this particular panel, is: “So, are we just supposed to let people break the law?? I mean, the record industry is, like, dying right?  And isn’t part of the reason it’s dying is because so much of everything is available for the ripe price of free99?”

If you were to ask this perhaps not unreasonable question to this New Yorker country lawyer, however, you would probably want to avoid using the aforementioned descriptor “weasily” in reference to his prose.  After yelling (for realz), “Who is the weasel in a court where giant corporations are inventing cases against individual Americans?!  I am not a weasel!  You’re a weasel!  I’m not answering your question!  You sit down!  You sit down!” he will then, after calming himself, declare in tone most reasonable: “I am a not a visionary.  I am a trial lawyer.  When cases are brought without evidence, when there is no legal evidence, it is my job to say this is an affront to the law.  I deal with the law as it is written.  And as it is written these cases are flagrantly without any legal basis and potentially unconstitutional.”

The irony, according to Ray, is that this campaign of legally questionable assault is producing absolutely no gains for the record industry.  Needless to say, peeps still be downloading.  And there has yet to be a single case against anyone for Bit-Torrent use, which is more and more the norm (this apparently has something to do with a techy thing I don’t get — you “leech” torrents from various “seeders” so no one ISP address is responsible).  All this leads Ray to ask, “Why?  Why are the labels doing this?”  His answer: the big record companies are “dying animals lashing out.”   They are tyrants who, as they watch their empire crumble, attack the weakest among them in final throes of scapegoating belligerence.  They are tragic not-so-heroes who know their time has come, and aren’t going down alone.

The upshot to all this, Ray says, is “this is a conversation about the past.”  When the big labels are gone, as he claims they surely will be, we’ll have more artists “bringing us their unique and special gifts, not dependent on major corporations to earn a living doing what it is they should be doing.”  He predicts that “we’ll have less platinum records, but more and better records.  That is the golden age coming.”  Change is painful, it turns out.  Ask the home health aid whose not sure if she has a mac or a PC but got sued for illegal copyrite infringement nonetheless.  Or that dude with the lawyer problem.