There have been several breathless news stories this week, including a few in some pretty respectable media outlets, about the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) seeking a mind-boggling $72 trillion (that's not a typo) in damages from LimeWire. It's the kind of story that grabs your attention no matter which side you are on when it comes to the RIAA's fight against music piracy. It would have been a great story for Computerworld as well, if only it had been true.
The fact is, the RIAA has never asked $72 trillion from anybody, ever. The claim that it did however, oddly enough appears to have originated from a story that Computerworld (and several others) did more than a year ago. Let me explain.
Earlier this week, the U.K.-based music website NME.com for some reason picked up a story that I had done in March 2011 about New York federal judge Kimba Wood dismissing as "absurd" an RIAA claim in a music piracy lawsuit involving LimeWire. Wood had noted that the line of reasoning the RIAA had used in the case would mean that LimeWire was on the hook for trillions of dollars in statutory damages.
An award based on the RIAA's reasoning would amount to "more money than the entire music industry has made since Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877," Wood had noted in her ruling. The 'absurdity' of such a result requires the court to reject the music industry's argument, she had added.
NME picked up that story from last year and for some reason ran it this week as a new one, albeit with an additional twist. The website, based apparently on some of its own calculations, concluded that the RIAA was claiming it was owed $72 trillion in damages from LimeWire for music piracy. The NME story, which linked to Computerworld's March 25, 2001 story, was promptly picked up and reported as fact by several others, even though a cursory glance at the dateline would have shown that the story was more than a year old and had no mention of $72 trillion.
Techdirt, which ran a story on the fiasco, lists some of the sites that ran with the NME story, without paying attention to when it first ran, or it would seem, checking with the RIAA to see what was going on.
Among the sites that ran stories based on the NME report were CBS (which later pulled the story), Forbes, ZeroPaid and Spinner. The Onion's A.V. Club also ran the NME story but then updated it to say that the NME story and Computerworld story it quoted in its report were inaccurate. Actually that is wrong is well. The only thing inaccurate was its original reporting of the story.
For the record, LimeWire settled with the music industry for $105 million last May.
I asked the RIAA's Cara Duckworth, who is a spokeswoman for the organization, what she thought about the whole silliness. Here's what she had to say: "This was disturbing to see. We would hope that there be basic standards that reporters and bloggers adhere to, like doing original research, checking with sources referenced, before just re-posting a story and accepting everything as fact. That means also actually attaching a byline to a post too. The standard should not be "we'll post whatever and correct it if it's wrong." Get it right in the first place, do the homework. "