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Internet Piracy: 20 Billion Songs and Counting

Hearing the word “Radiohead” might cause some of us in Congress to think of oversized headphones hooked into a table-sized sound system — for others it might even sound like an iPod-related affliction.

Radiohead is one of the world’s most popular bands, yet they currently are making a name with an unprecedented release of the band’s new album, “In Rainbows.” Bypassing the traditional distribution

process that platinum-selling artists typically employ, the band is rewriting the industry’s rules by eliminating physical album sales and only selling online tracks at a user-driven price. Radiohead is letting listeners name their price … but why is Radiohead taking matters into its own hands? Some will immediately point to greed. After all, why wave goodbye to 90 percent of your profits when you can keep 100 percent?

This argument misses the point and overlooks musicians’ frustration with the federal government’s reluctance to effectively combat intellectual property theft online.

In shifting music sales from the record store to the click of the mouse, Radiohead is both taking a bold stand against piracy and recognizing the odious reality that confronts every member of the recording industry today; unfortunately music is available for free on the Internet to every man, woman and child who chooses to steal it.

According to the IFPI, 20 billion songs were illegally downloaded in 2005. This number increases every year because of increased international access to broadband Internet and the rapid development of data-transfer speeds that allow users to download music in seconds. Combined with the sale of more than 1.2 billion pirated CDs in 2005, the recording industry loses multiple billions each year because of online theft both domestically and internationally.

A strong argument can therefore be made that piracy is devastating a once-thriving economic engine for the American economy. In 2006, the recording industry sold more than 642 million physical copies of individual albums, 26.1 million digital albums, 586 million digital singles and more than 400 million ring tones. This amounts to a 28 percent increase in cumulative unit sales, including online music and new media, since 1996.

Yet total retail value decreased by 6.2 percent (13.6 percent not counting digital sales) during this 10-year period. This precipitous economic decline is not limited to bicoastal moguls in Hollywood and New York City. It presents a significant challenge for my constituents as well.

Nashville, for example, is the nation’s incubator for country, bluegrass and gospel music, while Memphis claims a birthright to the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. The recording industry is responsible for $6.38 billion and $238 million, respectively, in annual economic impact for Nashville and Memphis, and it provides 54,000 jobs to the community. Music is therefore a linchpin for Tennessee’s 7th district, and international piracy poses a key threat to its long-term viability.

We need this industry to stay viable, and to accomplish this goal the federal government must confront piracy at home and abroad. The administration is admirably fighting the latter through vigorous enforcement before the World Trade Organization, political pressure in free-trade negotiations and diplomacy with nations that play host to large online pirates such as Russia.

For example, the U.S. trade representative currently is pursuing two actions before the WTO that take China to task for failure to enforce copyright law. While China has taken small steps to crack down on piracy, the state continues to employ enforcement polices that allow counterfeiters to peddle pirated goods below a certain threshold, with no fear of criminal prosecution. USTR is attempting to remedy this problem via a settlement panel at the WTO and pursuing a similar effort to give copyright owners more tools to prevent production of pirated works in China.

The administration also is leveraging Russia’s lobbying campaign for membership in the WTO into a domestic crackdown on online piracy. Fearing U.S. efforts to block his nation’s accession to the WTO, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to shut down, a service that allows 5.5 million users to illegally download music. In both cases, the administration’s political pressure and assertive action is paying dividends for the U.S. creative community.

Yet Congress is largely missing in action.

This is not for lack of creative legislative ideas. H.R. 1689, for example, would require universities to implement a plan for technology-based deterrence to illegal file sharing.

This bill simply asks taxpayer funded institutions to affirmatively combat online piracy.

Congress ought to tackle stream-ripping of digital music from online broadcasts and ensure royalty equity for American songwriters, but it should immediately take up and pass H.R. 1689 to start.

Radiohead deserves a great deal of credit for taking a very bold stand against piracy. Yet the group’s decision should hit a resounding note with lawmakers: Our work to protect artists’ intellectual property in the digital age remains undone.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is the founder and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Songwriters Caucus.