The fun-loving, tireless guys at the RIAA have sent a interesting letter [pdf] to America's ISPs calling for their help in the war on illegal downloads.
First, the music industry hints that it's about to launch a new wave of pointless, nasty legal actions:
Well, just because an idea is a self-defeatingly expensive one, that's no reason to give up, is it?
Then, they claim that consumers love having their privacy violated by their internet service provider on the say-so of some record company:
Yes, when people are thinking of buying a broadband package, they do often consider "how quickly will this company bubble me to the RIAA" as almost as important a factor as contention ratio and price. Now, we're not going to call the RIAA liars, but we have heard repeatedly that making stuff up is a pretty good indication of fibbers at work.
The RIAA then provides a "model" letter, and reiterates that consumers will be thrilled - "will appreciate" - getting them.
Not as much as customers would appreciate their ISP asking for a higher level of proof from the RIAA before caving in, we'd imagine.
Then the letter takes a gently menancing turn - the RIAA shakes its head, claps the corporate hand round the shoulder, and warns that some ISPs have been bad. So very, very bad.
Some ISPs, it says, have told customers to ignore the RIAA. Some customers have been "given the wrong number" for phoning up the record companies represntatives. Heaven forbid, some ISPs have even tried to help their customers:
Fancy that - simply because the RIAA have been wrong, the ISP told its customer to find out some facts from a third party before speaking to the people demanding thousands of pounds on a bit of a whim. Just imagine, eh?
The RIAA suggests some re-education is required:
Why? Obviously, it's inconvenient for the RIAA if an ISP tells its customers that the RIAA's writ is not law, but surely "asking" staff to be prevented from pointing out that the record company is pursuing action which has been proven to be flawed in the past is an attempt to interfere with the customer's right to be given all the facts, isn't it?
But then, the RIAA hints quite clearly that it has been working on bum information in the past:
... no, it doesn't want the ISP to efficiently and quickly inform its customers this time. "Tell us", says the RIAA, so we can avoid "perpetuating the mistake by filing a lawsuit."
Of course, since the RIAA is pushing for settlement as quickly as possible - before court - chances are the labels will be pocketing the money before anyone has a chance to notice the mistake.
The letter encourages ISPs to make sure their help is good. Eye-openingly, it then lists some of the problems its trying to avoid:
The ISP identified a subscriber [but] failed to maintain records [so] could not exculpate the subscriber.
But if the ISP has no record which shows the subscriber wasn't using a certain IP address, doesn't that mean they also have no evidence which proves they were?
And if there are cases where the record-keeping has been this poor, doesn't this mean the RIAA have been leaning on people incorrectly?
And if the RIAA have made mistakes in the past, isn't it only fair to tell customers that, when they become the target of the RIAA?
Taking a deep breath, the organisation offers to forward a form letter to the ISP which can be sent to customers suspected (remember, only suspected) of illegal downloads. Smart guys at the RIAA - they're cutting costs by getting the ISP to pay the postage on their legal notices. That's one way to keep the spiralling fees they're paying the lawyers down. It also offers - "to benefit your subscribers" - a chance for the ISP to participate in an extended period of negotiation if they play ball with them.
This is all a little puzzling - the RIAA maintains that file-downloaders are no better than common thieves, pinching stuff and putting kiddiewinks into the poor house. It's only - assuming their IP addresses are right - customers who are involved in this theft who would benefit from this extended window. So are the RIAA really saying that ISPs should sign up to a scheme which is only of benefit to their law-breaking customers? If the RIAA is serious about how bad downloads are, why are they offering such a deal?
It's because, of course, the legal threats are no longer about right and wrong, or protecting artists in a digital age. Threatening the poor with enormous legal bills they can't afford, and offering a cheaper get-out, has become a nice little earner for some sections of the music industry and entertainment lawyers. The letter shows a shameless bid to shake-down rather than a serious attempt to enforce copyright.
Most compellingly? The RIAA is setting up a website, www.p2plawsuits.com, purely to process "early settlement" payments from frightened families. None of this has stopped people from downloading music, but it's certainly helped redirect cash from families to paralegals and executives.