Fighting Piracy on Music's High Seas
photography by denmarsh
A case so highly charged, prosecutor Deborah Robinson, ’93, then Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, had bodyguards for the duration of the trial—one that ultimately ended in a mistrial after a five-day jury deliberation that left them deadlocked.
It had not been the first time that Robinson’s career had intersected with the entertainment industry. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Robinson prosecuted music piracy cases as an Assistant D.A. And from her first position as an associate at Crawford & Associates, Robinson quickly found herself immersed in music law. There, she represented musicians and producers, shopping record deals and negotiating contracts.
Her love of entertainment law, coupled with her increased high-profile experience, brought her early attention. And the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would soon come calling.
Called “one of the stars” in the business by RIAA Senior Counsel for Corporate Affairs Barry Robinson, Deborah Robinson is now the Regional Counsel for the Central Region of the RIAA’s Anti-Piracy Division. She is at the forefront of a division dedicated to the deterrence of music piracy through enforcement and education.
Today, Robinson is one of the architects of copyright law in the music industry.
Working at a place where the walls are dripping with gold and platinum.
To walk through the halls of the Recording Industry Association of America headquarters in Washington, D.C., is to walk through the annals of music history. From Frank Sinatra’s gold album “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back,” to the Beatles’ multi-platinum compilation album “The Beatles 1962–1966,” to Usher’s seven-times platinum “The Truth Tour,” the gold, platinum and diamond albums from the world’s greatest music legends greet you at every turn.
The RIAA is the association that bestows the industry’s gold, platinum, and diamond album awards. Yet, the RIAA adorns its walls in this way not in an attempt to showcase historic artifact, but to pay tribute to the creative artistry and business acumen of scores of people—the singers, musicians, lyricists, producers, and record companies—who, together with a host of others, collaborate to make the magic that is a single recording.
As a trade group dedicated to supporting the U.S. recording industry, the RIAA is committed to protecting the intellectual property rights of those very same artists.
Robinson is central to that mission as one of the RIAA’s most accomplished and effective advocates in its campaign against illegal downloading, file-sharing, and the illegal manufacturing, distribution, and sale of CDs.
Petite with a graceful and lithesome demeanor, Deborah Robinson, is, in fact, the anti-pirate.
It is a term not without its own share of controversy, with many bristling at the notion of such people as our mothers and grandmothers, who download music (albeit illegally) and are subsequently branded as “pirates.” Nevertheless, it is the term used nationwide to describe illegal downloading, file-sharing and illegal production and distribution of recordings—by trade associations like the RIAA that have an Anti-Piracy Division and by the FBI whose anti-piracy notices can be found on CDs.
While piracy is largely regarded as a modern-day metaphor for theft of digital and online varieties, the notion of “pirating” another’s creative work is hardly new at all. In fact, it is a centuries-old concept, dating back to at least 1879, when Alfred Tennyson is thought to have coined the term. Tennyson said that his poem, “The Lover’s Tale,” had been “mercilessly pirated,” having been copied and distributed without his consent.
This nineteenth-century writer chose what would become a richly vivid and timeless metaphor to describe pilfering of all sorts. Indeed, it is a term that evokes grand images of theft on the high seas, amid swashbuckling buccaneers sailing beneath their iconic flag of skull and crossbones.
Needless to say, Deborah Robinson is not battling incorrigible pirates on the high seas. But she is engaged in an equally daunting battle, “which is the battle over copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property,” Robinson says matter-of-factly. Fought in illegal CD production factories, on the streets and on the Web, it is an insidious battle of ever-increasing complexity.
In part, because music is germane to everyone. It is the language of the soul. It has the uncanny, evocative ability—in the span of a few lyrics or several chords—to instantaneously transport us to a special time, person or place. It’s the music we fell in love with, celebrated with and were comforted by. More than just a cultural marker, music is indelibly woven into our lives as soundtrack. “Music is very personal and richly satisfying,” Robinson explains. “We have a deep relationship with music, developed at a very early age that has usually solidified by the time we reach middle school.
“And so, all across America, and especially in homes with young children, there is a real disconnect between the act of downloading the music they love without actually paying for it, and understanding the illegality of that act,” Robinson explains.
Unlicensed physical and online use of music has exploded. Digital formats have forever changed the way the world receives its music. Digital technology has not only dramatically enhanced the clarity of audio recordings, but it also has dramatically increased their accessibility. At the mere click of a button or mouse, the music can be ours.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the rampant copyright infringement going on via the Internet through the use of multiple formats such as .wav or MP3 files.
The statistics tell the story.
In 2006 alone, 586,000,000 people downloaded digital singles—representing a 60 percent increase over 2005. Downloads of digital mobile formats (such as mobile mastertones and ringbacks or “ring tones”) increased 84 percent to 775,000,000.
Yet, while the digital age has brought music consumers unparalleled access, it also has spawned a culture of unbridled, unlicensed use.
2005 statistics of U.S. music acquired by those aged 13 and older tells the story with stark clarity—the majority of music received was not paid for. More than 50 percent was acquired either through illegal peer-to-peer networks (P2P), such as Napster, or through burned (borrowed) CDs.
“Those statistics point to an even more startling and daunting fact,” says Robinson. “Less than half of the U.S. population gets their music by paying for it—a percentage that has been continuing to decline. We now know that there are children and teens who have never walked into a store to buy a CD. They, in some cases, aren’t even aware of the concept of buying a CD—they have always downloaded their music, and usually without paying for it.
“Accessing the music, burning the CDs is all so easy to do now and can be done in the privacy of one’s home. But that doesn’t make it right. I believe children, especially, see the disc and have no true appreciation for the cost and amount of work that goes into making a single recording. Many see the glitz and glamour associated with the entertainment industry and conclude, incorrectly, that the record companies do not lose. But the sad truth is, not only does the music industry lose—an estimated $300 million a year due to illegal activity—but hard-working people lose jobs—from the factory workers at CD manufacturing plants to retailers where the small, locally owned stores suffer the most. Oftentimes, pirated music is being sold on the streets right outside the door of ‘Mom and Pop’ music stores.”
That trend presents just one of the many daunting challenges before Robinson. The scope of her work is equally daunting. Covering a 16-state territory that includes the District of Columbia—reaching as far west as South Dakota, south to Virginia, and as far east as Trenton, New Jersey—she monitors all music piracy prosecutions. She trains prosecutors and provides them with investigative support, courtroom support, and assistance with case preparation. She also takes part in outreach programs for schools and colleges aimed at building awareness among young consumers.
But Robinson faces some of the most challenging situations working alongside FBI agents, local police departments and federal prosecutors, assisting with undercover operations, investigations and in large-scale raids and seizures.
“The sale of pirated music takes place on the streets in a variety of ways with a variety of agendas. In Chicago, for instance, gangs are selling on the streets, recruiting children to sell the CDs in a model similar to that used in drug trafficking. In Baltimore, the RIAA has been investigating and prosecuting those who sell drugs together with pirated music, inserting heroin and/or crack within the CD package. Sellers ask if you want your music ‘with’ or ‘without.’
“How can artists and record companies continue to create and produce music if the marketplace cannot or will not support the cost of production?” Robinson posits.
The unanimous Supreme Court ruling in MGM v. Grokster in June of 2005 gave the discussion a “moral clarity,” said Robinson, “setting the stage for reform.” The 9–0 decision against the peer-to-peer file-sharing program owned and operated by Grokster Ltd. said that copying copyrighted material using “unauthorized peer-to-peer services is illegal,” and that the defendants’ “unlawful objective is unmistakable.” The ruling initiated a “ripple effect” of similar rulings around the world, most notably in Korea, Australia and Taiwan.
The Court’s decision was very encouraging, Robinson says. “While we will never be able to totally eradicate the problem, much is being done to minimize illegal activity in some areas and stop it completely in others.” She points to a significant rise in enforcement—online and on the streets; to improved civil and criminal remedies, citing as one example Delaware’s move to upgrade CD piracy from a misdemeanor to a felony; to legislation such as the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005.
And it is education, Robinson believes, that will provide the most promising panacea and will make the most significant difference in the way the world comes to understand this issue, especially among children and young adults.
Thanks in part to the RIAA’s education efforts, more than 150 colleges and universities now offer students options for legal music downloading. Campus models range from inclusion of download fees as part of a student’s university technology fee, to university partnerships with subscription services such as Napster and others, to harsher campus penalties for illegal file-sharing.
“We also go into middle schools and high schools to teach students what it means to produce a CD—who makes it, what it takes to create it, how much it costs to record, produce and distribute—and what the concept of copyrighted material actually means,” Robinson goes on to say. “And you know what? The students say, time and again, they never thought about it in that way before—never understood the correlation.
“Reaching out and educating the population is critically important to this issue and is such an important part of what I do,” says Robinson.
And always has been. Indeed, Robinson sees herself as both attorney and educator, with each role seamlessly woven into the fabric of her work.
In addition to her role at the RIAA, Robinson is a TV legal analyst who is regularly seen on national network and cable outlets. On issues ranging from the intricacies of NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens’ latest contract negotiations, to the fallout from the Duke lacrosse team scandal, to the Laci Peterson murder trial, ESPN, CNN, Court TV and others turn to Deborah Robinson for expert legal analysis. Shows such as ESPN-TV’s “Sports Center,” “ESPN News,” “Mike and Mike in the Morning,” and CNN’s “Nancy Grace” show have featured Robinson. She simply and cogently deciphers the legal issues behind some of the country’s most gripping headlines. And in the process, helps millions of people better understand not only the stories of the day, but the legal system itself.
It is a role Robinson deeply cherishes, helping to create a better-educated, informed citizenry while simultaneously giving people another perspective. Not just on the law. But on life and opportunity.
“If I can help motivate and inspire just one person. If I can help even one person see that there are options in life, then I have fulfilled a lifelong ambition,” says Robinson.
A highly visible role model, Robinson hopes her TV presence may influence more minority women to consider the law as a career. By that presence, she hopes to illustrate that the practice of law is not out of reach. “So many young people really don’t know what lawyers do. They see me and start to realize that a lawyer can look like me—a young, African-American woman, who is not always in a business suit.”
The legal landscape of Deborah Robinson’s world remains uncharted territory—in many ways, still the “high seas” of copyright law.
Yet, Robinson firmly believes, “We’re clearly making progress on all fronts. I see it in the enforcement, in the legislation, in our outreach efforts.
“I truly believe my work educates people, enhances and promotes creative artistry, and advances what is right for all concerned. And I have the best of both worlds—working on the cutting edge of the music industry and intellectual property law.
“I am helping to define intellectual property law in the U.S. within an industry I love. What better job could I possibly have?”