Is the RIAA admitting defeat?

The recording industry has fired some of its online spies -- but that doesn't mean they're about to get all warm and cuddly. Cringe has the scoop.

The RIAA has called off some of its pit bulls, but don't expect a kindler gentler trade org to emerge in 2009.

The Wall Street Journal has confirmed a report that first surfaced on Jon Newton's P2Pnet blog saying the trade group has given walking papers to Media Sentry, one of the firms it hired to infiltrate file-sharing networks and track down music felons.

According to the Journal, the record industry mongrels are going with a Danish firm, DtecNet Software, for its spook activities. I'm sure they'll do just as fine a job hunting down children, disabled mothers, and dead people.

Frankly, trying to sue file sharers out of existence has failed catastrophically. Record sales continue to plummet, file sharing continues to grow. Worse, these take-no-prisoners tactics have permanently submarined the music industry's already tainted reputation at the precise moment when ordinary consumers have begun to wonder why, in the age of Internet distribution and unsigned bands dominating MySpace, we even need an industry built around shipping music on shiny plastic platters. Nice going, RIAA.

Instead, the record companies will be pursing a different tack: Trying to get ISPs and taxpayers to foot the bill for policing file swappers. They succeeded in Tennessee last November, when the cash-strapped state government agreed to spend US$10 million hunting down music scofflaws on its state university networks.

Meanwhile in Rhode Island, the case of Tenenbaum v RIAA resumes tomorrow. In that one, grad student Joel Tenenbaum and his parents Arthur and Judie have enlisted the help of Harvard Law School in an attempt to show that the RIAA's legal tactics are unconstitutional.

In December, the court ruled that Harvard Professor Charles Nesson could not bring the case because he wasn't licensed to practice law in the state. This time he's filed a pro hac vice motion to allow Nesson to argue before the court, and they're bringing an RI-based attorney, just in case.

I predict we will hear less and less about the RIAA and its quasi-Gestapo tactics this year, and a lot more about its good buddies, the Motion Picture Association of America. The music horse has left the barn. But swapping movies -- harder to rip and share, much more expensive to make, more profitable for studios -- will be the new battleground.

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Robert X. Cringely

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