Chalk one up for Citizen Journalism

One of the big topics of discussion around the blogosphere this weekend was an emotional response to an Arizona RIAA lawsuit against an illegal downloader of copyrighted music. The music industry sadly continues to pursue legal remedy for its own malfeasance, and reports about various suits are commonplace discussions. Suing your customers is, after all, a highly crappy business practice.

Most of these stories are about sharing files, but this one had a twist.

According to a Washington Post story about the suit, “the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer” — that the MP3 files the defendant made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.

This is what got the blogosphere all riled up. How DARE they tell me what I can do with MY music! The only problem is that the story isn’t, well, precise. The assertion regarding the simple copying of a song for personal use was not a part of the lawsuit.

Blogger and new media thinker Robert Scoble jumped aboard the story and wrote that the RIAA is actually doing consumers a favor by forcing artists away from the fold.

This behavior will make sure people buy (or steal) music directly from bands. See how Radiohead did it. By doing that, the price for music will go down thanks to fewer intermediaries. RIAA is just helping us get rid of them, which is good for everyone who loves music…Radiohead put the power of setting the price in OUR hands. Brilliant.

The truth about the matter appeared in the comments of Scoble’s post and elsewhere, and the sources of the story backed off.

Three commenters to Scoble’s post, Jerry, Louis and Shelley, raised serious questions about the journalistic practices of those who spread the story and used the opportunity to criticize citizens media as a result.

JERRY: Have you actually read the briefing, or are you just basing your sarcasm on information you skimmed from other blogs? Why not read the actual briefing then make your argument?

LOUIS: It seems pretty obvious to me from these comments that none have read the actual briefing. It doesn’t say the RIAA wants to prevent is (sic) from copying music for your PERSONAL use.

SHELLEY: The summary judgment and the follow‐up brief all specifically state that the law suit is based on the distribution of the files, not the ripping of the files from CD…Facts, people. I know facts aren’t fun, but can’t we try focusing on the facts? At least, from time to time?

JERRY: So much for the accuracy and reliability of “citizen journalism”. And people complain about the accuracy of the MSM?

JERRY: I guess the adage “don’t believe everything you read” applies to the blogging world, too. Too bad most bloggers don’t apply it. Most are more interested in getting linked to than getting facts straight.

With respect to Jerry, this case shows the value of citizen journalism, not its shortcomings. As I pointed out in Scoble’s comments, the Washington Post was involved in this. They may have gotten their “tip” from the bloggers, but they were involved just the same.

Before the blogosphere, before citizen journalism or citizen media, before the people formerly known as the audience had the opportunity to publish for themselves, mainstream media outlets could operate with impunity with regards to the shaping of stories. This is called setting the information agenda, in which the only spin that matters is what the media company says.

Imagine, if you will, if the Washington Post had run such a story 10 years ago. Who would’ve provided the correction? Where would it have been published? How far downstream would the story have gotten before the focus shifted?

The point is that citizen journalism doesn’t function like the mainstream press of years gone by, because comments to a blog post or story ARE A PART OF THE STORY. News is a process, not a finished product, and this is crystal clear in the world of citizen journalism. As such, the fact that Jerry and Louis and Shelley could help set the record straight makes the case FOR the practice.

They and others might argue that the incorrect story shouldn’t have ever seen the light of day in the first place, but that idealistic perspective strikes at the heart of the problem of gatekeeper journalism. Journalists are no less human than anybody else, and despite elaborate (or not) systems of vetting, mistakes are commonplace. If we accept that, then any open and transparent method of immediate correction moves journalism forward, in my judgement, and not backwards, as many in traditional media would have us believe.


  1. http://Holly says

    As someone who gets about half of my news from blogs, I read the reporting of this issue, but not the brief itself, and was thus fooled. That’s fine with me; lesson learned. I’ll read the primary source documents myself next time. The most telling aspect of this story, however, is that no one questioned it. The RIAA has gone so far, and sunk so low, that when told they were suing people for putting their own legally purchased music on their own hard drives, the immediate assumption was that it was the truth. It’s entirely plausible, and if I had to guess, eventually coming down the pike anyway. Thus the reaction may have been less a reaction to an incorrect understanding than a prophetic one.

  2. http://Safran says

    To be precise:

    From the complaint’s supplemental brief, P.15:

    “Once Defendant converted Plaintiffs’ recording into the compressed .mp3 format and they are in his shared folder, they are no longer the authorized copies distributed by Plaintiffs.”

    What the RIAA objects to is the act of ripping a recording AND placing it in a shared folder.

  3. That would be his Kazaa Shared folder, Steve. That’s what the suit is about. Different than just copying for personal use, which the RIAA’s own website says is okay.

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