Has the Sherriff of Nottingham Won? And is that a Bad Thing?

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 By David Anthony, Junior Editor

We all know the story of Robin Hood, right?  Third crusade, Englishman, bow and arrow, Maid Marian, Little John, all that good stuff.  And whether you picture him as Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, or even Carry Elwes, [1] we all know the general premise of the story: Steal from the rich, give to the needy, good guys win, bad guys lose. 

We have all also, at some point in our life, recognized the fact that what our hero of Loxley did was downright illegal.  Let’s face it, you can’t steal from the wealthy and just give the “proceeds” to the less fortunate.  “Aha!” You say, “what about the evil Sheriff of Nottingham who overtaxed the needy and was generally a really bad guy?  That made it equitable for Sir Robin to do what he did.”  Perhaps so, but what if Robin lived today?  Don’t shrug off the suggestion so quickly. 

In fact, for over a decade, hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals have committed themselves to the exact same objectives that steered our hero all those centuries ago.  Granted, today they are neither called heroes nor even Merry Men.  No, modern vernacular tends to refer to these individuals with an equally colorful title: pirates.  After all, what do today’s pirates do?  Take intellectual property from its rightful owners and distribute on a basically free basis.  It sounds like they all deserve a green cap with a feather in it, if history is any indicator.  Realistically what they will probably get, however, is a prison sentence and millions of dollars in fines. 

I will be the first to admit that, as a 12 year old with a 56k modem and a brand new Gateway computer with the Windows Me operating system, the draw of Napster (the original one) and Bear Share may or may not have been too much to resist.  I am not alone in these shoes, either.  A 2011 study showed that 46% of all adults (ages 18+) had at some point in time downloaded or illegally copied a song or video.[2]The world and internet today, however, is far different from the internet of the late 90s/early 2000s; we know better now. 

And well we should.  Over the past decade or so, the entertainment industry has fought tooth and nail to curb the spread of illegal internet sharing of media.  Everything from ad campaigns[3] to large scale lawsuit campaigns against everyone in the spectrum, including digital pirates and everyday suburbanites.[4]

Not to mention that a trip to the local record store (Walmart) is no longer required to buy a $14.99 cd.  We can all now lazily sit at home and buy our music online from our preferred retailer (be it Amazon or that other one).  Even better, if you only want that one good song from the radio and not the other tripe from the soon-to-be-one-hit-wonder, you can pay less than a buck and be done with it.  Further, there are a multitude of online resources from which we can listen to our favorite music as much as our audiophile hearts desire, for absolutely no cost. 

All this is to say that we have become quite comfortable, maybe even spoiled, in the current digital music age.Even while I type this blog post I am listening on Spotify to some band I have never heard of and am not paying a dime for it.  But someone is.  Sticking with my current example (and shameless plug for), Spotify, the entirety of the service’s money comes from advertisements and subscriptions to the premium service.  While a nice share of this is profit is for the service, about 70% is used to pay royalty fees for the content.  According to an FAQ on the service’s website:

“Spotify pays out the majority (approaching 70%) of ALL of our revenue (advertising and subscription fees) to rights holders: artists, labels, publishers, and performing rights societies (e.g. ASCAP, BMI, etc.). In just three years since launching, Spotify has paid out over 500M USD in royalties.

Spotify has direct agreements with record labels, digital distributors, aggregators and publisher collecting societies, to whom we regularly pay royalties, and who then pay recording artists and songwriters according to their specific contractual agreements.

. . .

In general, however, Spotify pays royalties in relation to an artist’s popularity on the service. For example, we will pay out approximately 2% of our gross royalties for an artist whose music represents approximately 2% of what our users stream. A popular song or album can generate far more revenue for an artist over time than it historically would have from upfront unit sales.”[5]

The site goes on to say that since June 2011, over $500M has been in royalties.  Granted, the amount of that money which actually reaches the artists is a completely different matter.[6]

                It certainly seems like we have everything figured out.  But what happened to the battle being waged just a few years ago?  Returning to Loxley, few times in history has there been an organization more deserving of the ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ title than the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).  In typical Nottingham fashion, the RIAA set the high prices for music, gave little to the artists, and was ruthless against any who challenged its dominance.[7]Overall, a justifiably vilified organization. 

                Today, in contrast, we hear much less of the RIAA.  This is likely because the RIAA was able to do what the Sheriff of Nottingham could never do: win the hearts of the people (whether the people know it or not).  Imagine if Nottingham had stopped overtaxing the people, started to showing some sympathy, and worked as mediator between King John and the people to come to more equitable agreements.  Suddenly the acts of Sir Robin become much less heroic.  This is what the RIAA has likely realized.  Instead of fighting the technological evolution of the industry, the organization has worked with services like Pandora, Spotify, as well as the online retailers to make it easier for consumers to have access to music while simultaneously finding ways to keep the royalty revenues heading in the proper direction. 

                Illegally downloading music today has a much more negative stigma attached to it for this exact reason.  Why would you do that considering how easy and affordable it I to access music?Instead of being obsessed with sticking it to the man, these days we are more focused with making sure we support our artists.  In a sense, the RIAA, or Sheriff, or the Man, or whatever you want to call it, has won.  That fact, while sobering, doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, however.  Such cooperation between artists/labels, consumers, and services which bring the two together should continue to be encouraged in order to continue the trend.  While it is possible that Robin Hood might one day again be required, for now it seems that the Sheriff has things under control in a good state of affairs.


[1] I personally prefer an animated fox

[6]See Chart on The Barn Presents Article, supra note 2. 

[7] For a rather biting critique of the RIAA during its lawsuit heyday, see https://www.eff.org/wp/riaa-v-people-five-years-later

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