Rehashed Press Releases
Commentary by K. Matthew Dames, executive editor.
As a former member of the “mainstream” and “alternative” press corps, I am aware of one of journalism’s secrets: much of the information presented as news is really a press release distributed by some attention-seeking party and rewritten slightly so that the plug isn’t so blatantly obvious. I don’t claim to be above this practice, for during my journalism days I did that as much as any other journalist. Sometimes circumstances prevented me from writing a full article or giving a story both of its requisite sides.
One could say that as the main contributor to (and editor of) CopyCense, OpenWyre, and Search & Text Mining Report, I remain part of the press to some degree — although I’ve yet to determine whether blogging qualifies as journalism. I write, edit and operate all these publications with journalistic standards in mind, and for a variety of reasons, I suspect my choice distinguishes me somewhat from other bloggers. I have been discussing the conflict between blogging and journalism intermittently for most of this year with Online editor Marydee Ojala, and we have discussed whether bloggers should adopt or be held to journalistic standards. (One could reasonably suggest, though, that the press’ reliance on unnamed sources diminishes any standards it purports to have.)
But, alas, I digress. Let me return to the “rehashed press release” theme. News.com released a 78-word story last Thursday under John Borland’s byline that reminded us that Big Music’s lobbying organization is suing music downloaders for alleged copyright infringement. Why is this a story worth reporting? Why is this considered news? Why waste the time and resources of John Borland, who (along with Declan McCullagh) is one of News.com’s finest writers? Time and again, we have heard the din of the Big Music public relations machinery as it tries to intimidate consumers by trying to equate downloading with infringement. We also have heard that despite the lawsuits, music downloading activity has not diminished.
The RIAA lawsuits were news when Big Music started this gambit in June 2003. Now that we have some evidence that the lawsuits have not curbed music downloading or file swapping, I am convinced further that Big Music started this campaign more for public relations reasons than for legal reasons. True, there is a new study says that the number of households that engage in downloading has decreased; the same study says the amount of music files being downloaded is about the same. The new study was released just after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed (.pdf) a federal trial court ruling that fined Cecilia Gonzalez $22,500 in copyright infringement damages. Gonzalez, a Chicago mother of five children, argued she downloaded the songs onto her computer in order to determine whether to buy the music at retail.
Big Music’s spin on the new study is that its lawsuit campaign is [finally] working. But Borland, who also wrote the News.com article about the study, takes a more holistic view:
Despite headline-grabbing lawsuits against individuals, the effects on file-swapping behavior often have been hard to see.
The months after the Recording Industry Association of America first said it would start suing individuals did see a substantial drop in music downloading through networks such as Kazaa and eDonkey. But the numbers had crept up consistently since then–until the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.
Now it appears that many casual swappers have turned to other means of downloading music. The number of music files that are still being traded, however, has remained fairly flat, and actually increased slightly, from an estimated 258 million in June to 266 million in October.
Another way to look at this new information is to conclude that Big Music has wasted its resources racking up speeding tickets, but has yet to find a way to stop a group that has pilfered several high-priced pieces of art from the National Gallery. Another reason file-swapping may have decreased is because people and entities outside Big Music have introduced viable alternatives. Apple Computer’s iTunes and iPod have revolutionized music, giving consumers affordable, accessible digital music options. ITunes, in particular, has allowed consumers to buy single songs once again. Big Music had abandoned releasing singles to the public partly because it wanted consumers to pay the higher price for a full album (the suggested retail price of which now is near $20) instead of buying only the songs they liked (at a suggested retail price of about $5).
From any perspective, the legal, business, and public relations utility of the lawsuits has waned. Big Music should move on to something worthwhile, as should the press corps that, up to now, continues covering stories that have little newsworthiness. I can assure you that absent some news value brought about by extraordinary circumstances, CopyCense will resist the urge to rehash Big Music’s press releases about its ill-conceived, embarrassingly unsuccessful strategy to sue music consumers.
John Borland. RIAA Sues 751 File-Swappers. News.com. Dec. 15, 2005.
John Borland. Number of Music File-Swappers Falls, Study Says. News.com. Dec. 14, 2005.
Jefferson Graham. Online File Swapping Endures. USA Today. July 12, 2004.
CopyCense™: K. Matthew Dames on the intersection of business, law and technology. A business venture of Seso Digital LLC. CopyCense™ and CommuniK.™ are trademarks of Seso Digital LLC.