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Back to school with the RIAA

Riaa_logoThe Recording Industry Assn. of America launched two more educational campaigns this week aimed at elementary schools, middle schools and colleges. The group, which represents the four major record companies, is offering study guides and lesson plans to elementary and middle schools, and an instructional DVD to university students. I haven't seen the DVD, so I won't comment about it. All I'll say is that a person's basic sense of right and wrong is well developed by the time high school ends, and this is where the entertainment industry faces its biggest challenge. People who amass music and movie collections from file-sharing networks or copy them wholesale from their friends' collections in lieu of buying are either not seeing or not disturbed by the fundamental wrongness of their actions. And while the intellectual roots for that judgment go very, very deep -- according to this entry on ethics at Torah.org, the centuries-old definition of theft in Jewish law is obtaining anything without the real owner's knowledge or consent -- it's not felt instinctively by many music fans.

So the RIAA is doing the right thing by trying to generate an appreciation for copyrights among young students. You can see some of the material for grade-schoolers here. One goal of the lesson plans is to inject a new word, "songlifting," into the American lexicon, in an apparent bid to equate illegal file-sharing/CD copying with shoplifting. Ummm, aside from the fact that shoplifting is a state-law crime with modest penalties, while copyright infringement is a federal offense (typically civil) with disproportionately large penalties, I can see the similarities. In fairness, the word didn't spring from the mouth of an RIAA lawyer; according to the RIAA, it came from marketing students at the University of Houston. My main quibble is with the tone of the materials, which put more emphasis on instilling fear (spyware! porn! lawsuits!) than breeding respect. Net-savvy kids won't be stopped by the threat of malware, and the prospect of a lawsuit seems too abstract to affect them. Parents are likely to be more receptive on those fronts, but one thing the RIAA lawsuits demonstrate is how little control parents wield over their kids' Web habits.

I know the Motion Picture Assn. of America is mulling a new public-education effort, too. My sense is that both groups need to mount a long-term (think decades, like the anti-smoking campaign) effort to get across a point more basic than the tenets of copyright law. The missing piece here is the sense that music and movies have real value, regardless of whether they're reduced to bits or encased in plastic, and that taking something of value without permission is simply wrong -- particularly when there are many legal ways to obtain the same goods, including some that offer large quantities at low prices. There's always going to be a conflict between music fans' desire to share and the record labels' desire to be paid for every copy. And there are still some notable gaps in the lineup of legal products and services, especially when it comes to movies. But once students are sold on the basic notion that intellectual property has value, I think they'll be much more willing to support legitimate outlets for music and movies online.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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