Uploading democracy meets US justice

Uploading democracy meets US justice

Last week FBI agents raided the Los Angeles home of 27-year-old blogger Kevin Cogill and arrested him. Cogill's crime? He uploaded nine unreleased tracks from the upcoming Guns N' Roses album to his blog.

The album is titled "Chinese Democracy." Now there's an oxymoron for you.

Cogill admits to posting the files last June so GnR nuts could stream them off his music blog. He took them down when he received a cease and desist letter, and cooperated with the FBI in its investigation. According to Wikipedia (admittedly not the most reliable source) six of the songs had been made available in some other form and three were new.

Now Cogill's looking at three years in the pokey and fines of US$250,000, plus whatever damages the band might choose to pursue.

The legal argument here is that posting files for free kills legitimate sales of the music. (And Lord knows GnR must need the money -- they've only sold 90 million records during their career.) But Cogill didn't make the files available for downloading. He streamed them to a player on his blog.

If someone can explain to me how streaming music cuts out legitimate sales, I'd like to hear it. Don't we have an invention that does something very similar called ... radio? Hasn't that been the prime marketing vehicle for the recording industry for the past 50 years?

There's only one rational explanation for a deed so trivial to get this kind of attention. Someone with some serious juice is leaning on the feds.

Now I mean no disrespect to the hardworking guys and gals in blue suits and buzz cuts. They have a tough job and they seem to do it pretty well. In fact, the FBI has more on its plate than it can possibly handle. So to send five agents to arrest a scruffy blogger for streaming a handful of MP3s almost certainly means somebody pulled some strings.

Let me posit this hypothetical scenario. Recording industry mogul hears about the scruffy blogger, goes postal, calls his highly paid lobbying firm on K Street. Lobbyist contacts senator on the Judiciary Committee -- say, someone with a history of pushing RIAA-friendly legislation in return for major campaign donations (Orrin Hatch, your Blackberry is buzzing).

Senator calls the FBI director, who calls the director of the L.A. office. PR firm for recording mogul selectively leaks story of arrest to a handful of news outlets. Next thing you know Cogill is in cuffs and everybody has a nice juicy story to run on how the Internet is destroying the recording industry.

(News flash: The recording industry is destroying the recording industry. Can't happen too soon, in my opinion.)

This truly is Chinese democracy in action. The ruling party makes the rules and breaks them when they feel like it. They selectively prosecute those they perceive as enemies, while failing to act on far more serious breaches of the public trust by their allies. I don't think I need to list the many examples we've seen over the last eight years.

There are lots of ways this situation could have played out short of bringing in the feds. Guns N' Roses' management could have accepted Cogill's decision to take down the files and been done. They could have asked him for a royalty fee equivalent to what radio stations pay and continued to stream the music to fans hungry for more GnR. Or maybe they should have just thanked Cogill for putting the band back in the spotlight, 13 years after they last staggered out of a recording studio.

What do you think? Is three years in prison for nine songs a fair penalty? Who else deserves some time in the pokey? E-mail me:

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Tags riaaOrrin Hatchguns n' Roseschinese democracykevin CoghillRobert cringley



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