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Piracy watchdog's mild bite

Web Sheriff prefers to persuade, not prosecute, music fans.

June 09, 2011|Randy Lewis

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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 16, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Music piracy: An article in the June 9 Section A about efforts by a firm called Web Sheriff to combat music piracy misidentified Scott Borchetta in one instance as Taylor Swift's manager. Borchetta is president and chief executive officer of Swift's record label, Big Machine Records.

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.

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.

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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