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Piracy watchdog’s mild bite

The recording industry has a well-earned reputation for a brass-knuckles approach to Internet piracy. But in the run-up to the official release of Lady Gaga’s new album, “Born This Way,” the security firm hired to thwart would-be music thieves took to Twitter and various online fan forums with a surprisingly gentle plea.

“We would kindly ask you not to post pirated copies of ‘Born This Way’ on your site,” wrote the London-based firm called Web Sheriff. “The label, management and artist would greatly appreciate your cooperation.... Thank you for respecting the artist’s and label’s wishes.”

This gentle, gradual approach -- used on three of the biggest-selling albums of the last year -- represents a sharp turn in the recording industry’s life-and-death struggle with piracy, one driven largely by performers and their managers rather than the record companies.

The notable successes for the velvet glove approach include “Born This Way,” which crashed through the million-sales barrier in its first week, Adele’s “21,” the No. 1 record in the country for nine weeks, and Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now,” a mega-seller last fall.

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But not everyone in the industry buys into what might be called the diplomatic strategy, with critics pronouncing it naive.

Web Sheriff, founded 11 years ago by John Giacobbi, a veteran intellectual property lawyer, has emerged as a leading advocate of the soft sell in representing artists including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, the Prodigy, Adele and others. Giacobbi says his preferred strategy is to persuade rather than prosecute, to educate rather than incarcerate. He strives to avoid cease-and-desist orders, fines and criminal prosecutions and seeks to differentiate between professional music thieves and those he regards as hyper-enthusiastic fans.

“The only thing most fans are guilty of is over-exuberance,” Giacobbi said in a recent interview. “When you’ve got some artist they love and have been waiting for a new album for two years, you’ve got to treat them with respect rather than hit them with the big stick -- it’s a better way of doing it.

“Generally speaking it’s impossible to put the genie 100% back into the bottle, but you can contain it to a significant degree,” he said. “With Adele, we eliminated 99% of it [pre-release leaks].” The album has sold nearly 2 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Soundscan.

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Despite such claims of success, skepticism persists.

“It’s certainly well-intended and may work in some cases,” said Brad Buckles, the executive vice president for anti-piracy of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the industry lobbying arm. “The problem is in many, many cases, you’re dealing with people who have no respect whatsoever for the intellectual property of record labels or the artists themselves. . .

“I heard somebody say about Lady Gaga’s first-week sales that in the old days, that probably would have been 3 million,” Buckles said. “If we weren’t working as hard as we could to keep those things from being available for free off the Internet, it probably would have been a half-million.”

Scott Borchetta, head of Swift’s label, Big Machine Records, is not a Web Sheriff client, but used some similar strategies ahead of the release of “Speak Now.” He considered it a significant victory that the album leaked only two days ahead of its scheduled release date on Nov. 23.

“It’s a huge issue for superstar artists,” he said. “These people take years of their lives to create this, and the endgame in that creation is the way we’re able to bring it to the fans,” said Borchetta. “It’s heartbreaking to them when the music leaks; they feel like they’re being stolen from. . . It’s a lot more than the big, bad record company suing people.”

Giacobbi and Borchetta say it’s critical to distinguish among different groups: ardent fans who can’t wait for an official release; techno-geeks who are out to show they can beat the system; and hard-core music pirates -- a distinction that hasn’t always been the case historically.

“Our experience,” Borchetta said, “has shown that it’s more about that person who wants to scream ‘I got it first!’ and ‘I can break into any system.’ ”

“For commercial pirates,” Giacobbi said, “we have a zero-tolerance approach, and we have successfully shut down sites in China, Russia and Norway.” When Lady Gaga’s new record did leak ahead of the official release, thousands upon thousands of stolen tracks quickly disappeared from the Web. Giacobbi and representatives of Gaga’s label, Universal Music Group, declined to discuss how they did it. For individual hackers who flaunt the high-minded appeals, Giacobbi said redress is typically sought in civil rather than criminal courts.

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“We don’t go around online with a six-shooter and bully people,” he said. “The RIAA’s approach has been ‘Take this down or we’ll sue [you].’ As far as the files themselves, we can go in and remove material ourselves, and we can do it within 10 minutes. But we’ll also get on the [act’s] blog and post a message that says, ‘We know you’re a huge fan and you should appreciate the new release. But you should not be posting the album before release.’ ”

A veteran executive at one of the four major label music companies, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss security measures, scoffed at such sentiments.

“To be reliant on the velvet glove is sort of naive,” he said. “Historically it doesn’t work.” He said more significant changes have been spurred by the seizure of pirate websites by the U.S. Justice Department and Homeland Security. “People who don’t want to lose their sites and don’t want them to be seized are beginning to act in a more legitimate manner.”

Still, Giacobbi argues that most fans want to respect the artists’ wishes.

He cites amateur musicians who post their own performances of well-known songs on YouTube without realizing they are violating copyright laws. Van Morrison hired Giacobbi to deal with a raft of unauthorized performances of his 1967 hit “Brown Eyed Girl.” Web Sheriff contacted YouTube users and said all they needed to do to receive Morrison’s blessing was to include a credit line on their video linking to Morrison’s official site.

Canadian rocker Bryan Adams turned to Web Sheriff to deal with videos of his performances posted on YouTube by fans. He was more concerned about the poor quality of much of the material rather than any lost income.

“There were hundreds of copies of videos in various states of quality, many of them taken off television, most with really bad sound quality or out of sync sound,” Adams said by email.

Web Sheriff helped Adams create his own, official YouTube channel and then persuaded fans to remove tens of thousands of videos they’d posted. They’ve been replaced by original content created for the channel, which has logged nearly 190 million page views since it went up five years ago.

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It’s still early, but Swift’s manager Borchetta hopes the ground is shifting in the piracy wars.

“For the first time in the last few years, download sales are back up again. The experience is getting better all the time,” he said. “The value of music is at a critical moment. We’re working hard to get that value back.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com


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