The RIAA's comic crusade

The RIAA's comic crusade

The Recording Industry Association of America probably sees itself as a band of caped crusaders fighting for truth, justice and the American way. (And in this case, "American Way" translates into propping up a dying cartel seeking to squeeze as many pennies out of consumers as possible before they sink into the ooze.)

Now those masked men and women have found a new way to spread the mantra about the evils of file swapping -- via comic books. Even weirder is the ally they're roped into this scheme: the National Center for State Courts, an organization founded in the early 1970s by then Chief Justice Warren Burger "to improve the administration of justice through leadership and service to state courts."

The NCSC has begun publishing a series of graphic novels titled Justice Case Files to "provide a detailed, easy-to-digest explanation of how the criminal- and civil-justice systems work." Their first colorfully illustrated 24-page file? The Case of Internet Piracy. (Download an 11MB PDF version here).

Per the NCSC:

The story traces the experience of Megan, a college freshman charged with illegally downloading music, and Ellen, Megan's grandmother, who is fighting their city's attempt to seize their home through eminent domain.

Don't look now, but Archie and Jughead have been caught using BitTorrent again. What ever will Betty and Veronica think?

The "graphic novel" was created by Layne Morgan Media, a tiny ad agency in Springfield, Missouri, that specializes in comic books of a conservative persuasion. Other Layne Morgan titles include "Think Before You Drink," a tome warning against the evils of teen drinking, and "To Wait is to Win," where "readers can learn about the importance of abstinence." As P2Pnet's Jon Newton points out, however, the comic book appears to have been drawn with the invisible hands of the RIAA guiding the pen.

According to the comic book prosecutor:

"Megan Robbins was caught illegally downloading and sharing music files from several Internet Websites without paying for it over a period of three months. She is charged with theft at the state level. ... Even first time offenders such as Ms. Robbins face stiff penalties -- up to 2 years in jail and $25,000 in fines."

Megan pleads guilty and vows to never download anything ever again. She gets a deferred sentence of three months, three years of probation, and 200 hours of community service. She also agrees to become a anti-downloading spokesperson for the RIAA. (By the way, Grandma ultimately gets to keep her house. She's got a much more expensive attorney than Megan.)

I emailed Layne Morgan and NCSC asking who wrote these pamphlets and if they had any help from the RIAA. I'm still trying to connect with an NCSC spokesperson; when I do, I'll post an update here.

The alleged point of the Case File is to point out the differences between civil cases (the eminent domain dispute) and criminal cases (the evil file swapper). So far I've found one example of a state prosecuting someone for illegal downloads (in Arizona), while the RIAA has sued an estimated 40,000 people in civil actions under the DMCA. What's wrong with that picture?

The real point, of course, is to scare people who are likely to read comic books -- ie, tweens and young teens -- into thinking the police are going to bust down their doors if they start downloading music from "several Internet Websites." It's propaganda aimed at people who get their life guidance from comic books, which probably includes a significant percentage of office holders in Washington, DC.

Or as Newton puts it:

...the NCSC comic book is yet another blatant example of how the corporate entertainment cartels are able to abuse official American agencies and use taxpayer money to raise purely commercial issues to the level of serious crime at the expense of far more important matters which as a direct result are left by the wayside.

You might even say it's comical.

UPDATE: I finally reached Lorri Montgomery, director of communications for the NCSC, who was able to explain some things. She says the reason they chose file swapping and eminent domain for their first comic was the desire to appeal to both young and old audiences -- not some nefarious scheme by the RIAA. She says Megan's case was not based on any real world cases or particular state laws, but general state laws about theft (and not copyright, which is the basis for the RIAA suits). The book was reviewed by several legal scholars (also not affiliated with the recording industry). The books are used in jury rooms to instruct jurors on the differences between civil and criminal cases and to teach young people that the courts are "fair and impartial," Montgomery says. It's not used in cases that involve eminent domain or file swapping.

Just the same, I'm sure the music moguls have to be pleased by the notion of the federales showing up at people's doors and arresting them. Let's hope this scenario stays mainly in the realm of fiction.

If the RIAA really were a comic superhero, what special powers would it possess? E-mail me here -- Top suggestions will be featured in a future post.

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