Can CRIA Recover from the Largest Copyright Infringment Case In Canadian History?

Yesterday, news broke that the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) was sued for $6 billion (not $60 billion as initially reported) for commercial copyright infringement. The case was only filed and already, it is seemingly beyond the point of damage control for CRIA. The question is, can CRIA recover from what may be the biggest blunder in its history?

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

CRIA has certainly prided itself with acting as the voice of legitimacy in the copyright debate. The headlines in the last two press releases by CRIA starting on October 20, 2009 certainly gives an indication that they would like to be seen as the organization demanding strong rules against copyright violators. For the last several years, copyright infringement has been a topic at the forefront of CRIA. CRIA has argued that copyright infringement has been destroying the music industry in Canada. That’s precisely what makes this latest legal claim so explosive in the first place. The very activity CRIA has set out to stop is now the very same illicit activity they stand accused of doing in the first place. Not only is the news ironic in and of itself, it’s also possibly the largest legal claim in Canadian history.

How could such a thing happen in the first place? Was it a legal oversight? Was it a calculated risk? Was it something they knowingly knew was contrary to copyright laws and their very mandate and figured they could get away with? Who knows? What we do know is this, CRIA could face $6 billion in damages over copyright infringement – in effect, music piracy given the unauthorized use of the material.

Originally, many sources said the claim was, when the math was worked out, $60 Billion, not what the math really worked out to – being $6 Billion. $60 Billion certainly rolls off the tongue better, but the typo or simple miscalculation may not even matter in the eyes of the public. It probably was merely the social aspect of it all that made this story so fascinating to many. That social aspect might be just as damaging as being forced to pay the full fine and any settlement negotiation or talks of a trial haven’t even begun. Many involved in music (whether through commentary on the story or otherwise) in the first place have been hoping that the defendants are forced to pay the full fine. Even a vast majority of file-sharers believe that selling unauthorized material is wrong and it’s unlikely that musicians would lend CRIA very much sympathy either over this matter regardless on where they sit on the copyright debate.

It’s just two days after the story broke and already, CRIA is being called into question over the legitimacy of their standpoint on copyright infringement. It’s a viewpoint that was completely shattered because before this story, there was little doubt that CRIA was a focal point for those who stood against copyright infringement in all forms in Canada. Now the question on many peoples minds are, “Can CRIA legitimately be against copyright infringement when they themselves, on a massive scale no less, infringed on musician’s copyrighted works?” Really, can a commercial pirate claim to be the entity that stands against copyright infringement? Not likely.

Of course, over the last three years, CRIA has been trying to mend its wounds over the last public relations disaster. Three years ago, several Canadian record labels, namely the big Canadian record labels, broke away from CRIA saying that there was a difference in opinion between the labels and CRIA on key music industry issues. Several artists, many from at least one of those labels, went on to create the Canadian Music Creators Coalition which stands against suing music fans. The fallout for CRIA was the view that the only thing Canadian about CRIA was the letter ‘C’ given that its “A-list” labels were merely the big four foreign record companies. Ever since that day, CRIAs public relations image appears to have moved from being the single voice acting on behalf of Canadian musicians to more of an entity that is one of many voices saying the same thing. An admission that the whole issue has given CRIA a major credibility set-back? Maybe.

While a major setback, it wasn’t a setback CRIA couldn’t recover from necessarily on the public relations front. It’s not like they couldn’t, without hesitation, say they were the voice against copyright infringement. That point is what sets this particular case apart from the previous one because the very credibility that CRIA can argue that they are against all forms of copyright infringement is now cast in doubt – a standpoint that strikes at the very core of CRIAs existence. For CRIA, if not appearing to really be Canadian was a public relations disaster, this latest revelation must be a public relations catastrophe.

Even if CRIA was ultimately found not guilty on all charges, their reputation will never be the same. Some may look at CRIA the next time they say how terrible music piracy is and say, “These are the same guys that were busted for mass bootlegging for commercial gain” and dismiss their message as being purely hypocritical.

If CRIA is able to settle the case out of court, it’s as if they admit to the massive bootlegging, thus confirming what many already see in all of this – hypocrisy as big as it gets in the Canadian copyright debate.

If CRIA was fined the full amount, the financial burden may very well either cripple the entity or bankrupt them completely – the appearance of victory for those that oppose their opinions on copyright related matters.

So what’s left in the aftermath of all of this for CRIA? The best they may hope for is that they’ll have to resort to merely being an entity that advertises how well artists are doing on different top selling music charts for the next 5 years before a number of people are able to forget what has happened this week. If this is so, this latest revelation could not have come at a worse time. Given the push to finalize the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that would, among other things, pressure countries to put in a so-called three strikes and your out regime for file-sharers, CRIAs chance to showcase this agreement in Canada may be lost completely.

So the question remains, can CRIA come out of this public relations catastrophe alive? If they do, CRIA will probably not be the same, though this case might actually finish off the organization unless CRIA can pull through some sort of miracle.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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