Over the years, the music industry has embraced the internet and the growing capabilities of technology to make music more widely available and more easily accessible to music fans. Unfortunately, with each step forward the music industry takes to reach its fans, there are bad actors one step behind that exploit these new capabilities and harm the industry, individual song writers, composers and performers and—most of all—the music fans.
In the 90s, the technology of choice for accessing music was the compact disc (CD)—followed quickly by commercial bootleggers. In the late 90s and early 2000s, digital files like the mp3 began to replace the CD, allowing for greater convenience and versatility for music fans everywhere. Music pirates weren’t far behind, though, as file-sharing sites and other platforms for distributing illegal copies of music began popping up. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone walking down the street, Walkman in hand, listening to her favorite CD. Instead, the digital file still reigns supreme, but music streaming apps like Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora are the new go-to. But once again, history is repeating itself as pirates are turning to a new method of illegal copying: stream-ripping.
Stream-ripping is a process by which everyday listeners can “rip” a file from a streaming platform and convert it into a downloadable file, and apps that facilitate this process are rapidly growing in popularity. For example, a quick search for “stream-ripping” on Google returns numerous results from sites offering to help listeners download music streams. Even worse, a search for something as simple as “mp3” brings back several hits – including the very first result – prompting users to “convert YouTube to mp3.”
According to the 2016 Music Consumer Insight Report published by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), “stream-ripping is the fastest-growing form of infringement,” surpassing even file-sharing. The study also found that nearly half of millennials age 16 – 24, in countries around the world, engage in stream-ripping from popular platforms like YouTube. A piece published in the LA Times suggests that “[p]art of the problem is getting people who grew up in the age of Napster, LimeWire and Kazaa to pay anything for music… Many young people don’t see anything wrong with … ripping from YouTube.” But perhaps this is a rush to judgment. According to a study released by industry research firm MusicWatch, the distinction between authorized music streaming platforms and unauthorized music apps is often unclear. 73% of those polled said that the presence of stream-ripping apps on platforms like Apple’s app store legitimize these unauthorized apps in the minds of consumers.
The difficulty in combatting this problem is that there are no infringing links or content to pinpoint and eliminate. Instead, stream-ripping targets legitimate copies of music and creates illegal reproductions.
One method for dealing with this issue, however, is to target the source. In September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against the website “Youtube-mp3” for copyright infringement based on its stream ripping services. The complaint states that the site – which it describes as one of the most visited in the world – profits from copyright infringement and “is responsible for upwards of 40% of all unlawful stream ripping of music from YouTube in the world.” In addition to monetary deamages in the amount of $150,000 per infringement, the RIAA is seeking to have the website shut down altogether. And this isn’t just an issue in the United States. The British Phonographic Industry, which represents the UK’s music industry, has also notified Youtube-mp3 of its intent to sue if the site continues to facilitate stream ripping.
As stream ripping platforms are targeted and shut down, more users will move toward the numerous legitimate music streaming platforms available on the market today. These legitimate platforms offer a variety of business models at varying price points. They include Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Rhapsody (now rebranded as Napster), Amazon Music Unlimited, and SoundCloud. And while shutting down sources for illegal stream ripping won’t end piracy, it’s a step in the right direction toward protecting copyrighted content online.
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