Why Is the RIAA Going After In Rainbows Downloaders?

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Earlier today, Boing Boing brought an interesting piece of news to our attention: The RIAA and the FBI have instructed Google “to disable blogger accounts and filter search results where Radiohead’s In Rainbows is offered for free.” Now, as you will surely recall, In Rainbows was the band’s revolutionary pay-what-you-want experiment. For a limited time, fans could download it for free if they wished. And that raises an interesting question. Boing Boing quotes Mike Masnick at TechDirt, who wonders, “TorrentFreak notes, accurately, that Radiohead did do deals with major labels for distribution of the physical album of In Rainbows, but I was pretty sure they kept the copyrights themselves. Perhaps that’s not the case?”

So, what gives? We did some research to figure out the status of Radiohead’s In Rainbows copyrights.

A Billboard article dating back to October 9, 2007 — the day before In Rainbows‘ online release — explains the situation this way: “For the download version of the album, all rights — musical work and sound recording — are vested with the band, a spokesperson for the U.K.’s collecting society MCPS-PRS Alliance explains.” And yet, things aren’t quite as clear-cut as that initial statement makes them look. In the same article, a representative from Radiohead’s publisher, Warner/Chappell (which, by the way, is owned by Warner Music Group but is a separate company) clarifies that “all necessary licenses will be in place to allow proper payment of publishing royalties on both physical and digital sales of In Rainbows,” and that Warner/Chappell will administer those rights.

For those of us who weren’t business majors, a blog post by the “full service music distribution, marketing and promotion service” Penny Distribution breaks down what this means. Here is the salient piece:

WC handles the administration of the songwriting copyright for thousands of artists, including Radiohead. EMI controls the sound recording copyright of all of Radiohead’s albums except In Rainbows. By not resigning with EMI, Radiohead maintained control of their sound recording copyrights for In Rainbows, but choose to allow WC to continue to administer the songwriting copyrights. Although there are two separate copyrights (sound recording and songwriting) at work in every piece of recorded music, they are virtually useless when used independently of each other – digital downloads, using the music in a movie, making a CD, licensing the song to a video-game etc. all rely on the agreement of the sound recording owner (in this case, EMI for their seven prior albums, Radiohead themselves for In Rainbows) and the songwriting copyright owner (jointly Radiohead and Warner-Chappell Publishing for all albums).

A copyright lawyer could probably explain precisely what this means, but here’s what we get out of it: Radiohead’s digital copyright situation is a bit more complicated than meets the eye and certainly seems to open the door for someone other than the band (namely, Warner/Chappell, who are administering the licenses) to step in. That said, what actually happened to prompt the takedown requests is anyone’s guess.