On picking the right battles.

jesusr-no-runningSo there’s been a couple of news items recently about restaurants causing an uproar by offering discounts to customers displaying their religiosity. In one case Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, NC was offering a 15% discount to customers they saw praying before eating their meals.

The owner claimed it was more about public displays of gratitude than religion, but the receipts did list it as a ‘praying in public’ discount, which makes that claim seem a bit dubious. That said, it was never officially advertised and was handed out entirely at the discretion of the service staff for years before a pleasantly surprised customer posted a photo of their receipt with the discount to Facebook and it went viral. It wasn’t long after that the the owner was contacted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation — a group I support — with a letter informing them that the practice was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. The owner ended up deciding to discontinue the discount despite a lot of offers of free legal representation and visitors to the diner are now greeted with the following note:

“While you may exercise your right of religious freedom at this restaurant by praying over your meal to any entity or non-entity, we mush protect your freedom from religion in a public place. We are no longer issuing the 15% praying in public discount. It is illegal and we are being threatened by a lawsuit.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor told News & Record that the group didn’t threaten a lawsuit, but a lawsuit “would not have been off the table.”

She added that it’s illegal to “charge an atheist more than a Christian.”

Now the FFRF has contacted Bailey’s Pizza in Arkansas for offering a 10% discount to people who bring in church bulletins:

Sent earlier this month, the letter alleges that Bailey’s owner, Steven Rose, is discriminating against patrons who have not attended church.

“The law requires places of public accommodation to offer their services to customers without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” wrote FFRF representative Elizabeth Cavell.

Bailey’s, which opened last month, also allows patrons to write Bible verses on one of the restaurant’s walls.

In an interview with local media, Rose denies that the discount violates the Civil Rights Act, telling CBS affiliate THV11 that the discount “has nothing to do with excluding anybody.”

“It’s not specific to any church. It’s another way to bring people in and make them feel welcome,” said Rose.

“I offer discounts to others too — like college students, teachers, military, police and senior citizens.”

Now, technically, the FFRF is correct in that both of these policies violate the Civil Rights Act which includes religion as one of the criteria that public businesses cannot discriminate on and offering discounts for public displays of religiosity or church bulletins is a form of discrimination. Steven Rose disagrees and is vowing to fight the FFRF if they sue saying that if atheists really want the discount they can just download a church bulletin off of a website and bring it in and no one would question them on it. Which, yeah, you could do if you don’t mind dishonestly misrepresenting yourself to knock a few bucks off your pizza. I don’t think atheists should be forced into essentially lying to a business just to net a discount.

So, yes, I think the FFRF is right that this is a violation of the law, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to pick a fight over it. I don’t really care if religious folks get slightly cheaper food from a particular restaurant. If anything, it just makes me want to avoid that restaurant.  If they don’t mind alienating part of their potential clientele then so be it. Atheists in general, and the FFRF in particular, already take a lot of shit for fighting battles over displays of the Decalog and crosses on government property and I think those are worthy fights to be had. I’m not sure the extra ill-will we get from forcing a restaurant to cease offering preferential treatment to religious people is worth it.

That said, I would be sure to make it known to the owner of any restaurants that I did visit that had such a policy that I find it disappointing and wouldn’t recommend folks eat there as a result. Maybe that would make them rethink it and maybe it wouldn’t, but there’s plenty of places to eat that don’t discriminate to choose from. If their goal was to make people feel welcome and I don’t feel welcome, well, they failed in their goal.

One of the neat things about having had a blog for 13 years is that you can figuratively go back in time and see the person you once were simply by browsing through the archives. I was 34 when I first started blogging and back then I probably would’ve been right there with the FFRF decrying this as something that should not be! It’s an injustice against my people and will not stand!

fuckloadingfailI don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and just don’t have the energy I did 13 years ago, but these days my reaction to hearing about eateries like these was “meh.” It seems like you hear about this sort of thing every week now and it seems like a huge waste of resources trying to fight each one.

There’s also the fact that religious belief in America has been on a downward trend for some time now so it’s a problem that’s likely to take care of itself by the end of the century:

Every piece of social data suggests that those who favor faith and superstition over fact-based evidence will become the minority in this country by or before the end of this century. In fact, the number of Americans who do not believe in a deity doubled in the last decade of the previous century according to both the census of 2004 and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008, with religious non-belief in the U.S. rising from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.2 percent in 2001. In 2013, that number is now above 16 percent.

If current trends continue, the crossing point, whereby atheists, agnostics, and “nones” equals the number of Christians in this country, will be in the year 2062. If that gives you reason to celebrate, consider this: by the year 2130, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian will equal a little more than 1 percent. To put that into perspective, today roughly 1 percent of the population is Muslim.

The fastest growing religious faith in the United States is the group collectively labeled “Nones,” who spurn organized religion in favor of non-defined skepticism about faith. About two-thirds of Nones say they are former believers. This is hugely significant. The trend is very much that Americans raised in Christian households are shunning the religion of their parents for any number of reasons: the advancement of human understanding; greater access to information; the scandals of the Catholic Church; and the over-zealousness of the Christian Right.

So let them have their little discounts if they want them and save those resources for the bigger fights. Consider it a consolation prize as they’re headed out the door. Hell, if anything, this sort of thing does more harm to their cause than good. This sort of subtle discrimination only contributes to their downfall because it reveals them for the bigots they are.

Carbon sequestration project leaves family with carbonated land.

There’s been a lot of different ideas tossed around for dealing with the excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and one of them has been to capture it and pump it underground where it’ll be trapped, supposedly, forever. As an added bonus it can been used to force the last drops of oil from older reservoirs.

But I’ve always wondered if the claim that the gas would be trapped forever is really true. Surely there could be situations where pumping huge amounts of CO2 would end up causing more problems than it solves. Life tends to be like that. There are no perfect solutions.

It looks like that may indeed be the case for one Canadian couple:

Cameron and Jane Kerr own nine quarter-sections of land above the Weyburn oilfield in eastern Saskatchewan. They released a consultant’s report Tuesday that links high concentrations of carbon dioxide in their soil to 6,000 tonnes of the gas injected underground every day by energy giant Cenovus (TSX:CVE) in an attempt to enhance oil recovery and fight climate change.

“We knew, obviously, there was something wrong,” said Jane Kerr.

A Cenovus spokeswoman said the company doubts those findings. She pointed out they contradict years of research from other scientists.

“It’s not what we believe,” said Rhona Delfrari.

Now, to be fair to the energy company, this process has been in use since 1972 and there are literally tens of thousands of wells that make use of it.

That said, if what the news article claims is happening turns out to be true, then it looks like this may be a situation where things have gone very wrong:

Since 2000, Cenovus has injected about 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide underground to force more oil from an aging field and safely store greenhouse gases that would otherwise contribute to climate change.

But in 2005, the Kerrs began noticing algae blooms, clots of foam and multicoloured scum in two ponds at the bottom of a gravel quarry on their land. Sometimes, the ponds bubbled. Small animals — cats, rabbits and goats — were regularly found dead a few metres away.

The water, said Jane Kerr, came out of the ground carbonated.

“It would fizz and foam.”

Then there were the explosions.

“At night we could hear this sort of bang like a cannon going off,” said Jane Kerr, 58. “We’d go out and check the gravel pit and, in the walls, it (had) blown a hole in the side and there would be all this foaming coming out of this hole.”

Now I’m no expert, but when there’s carbonated water exploding out the ground and lab tests of the soil are averaging about 23,000 parts per million (with a peak of 110,607 ppm) I’d say that the Kerrs might have a pretty strong argument.

Of course if it turns out that the gas is leaking out of the ground then the company could be in for a world of hurt so it’s not surprising they’re reluctant to admit a problem is even possible. That shouldn’t be an excuse for them to abdicate their responsibility and hopefully the Kerrs will have their claims validated and addressed before the ecological damage is overwhelming.

Simply because it’s worked in other parts of the world doesn’t mean it’ll work everywhere. If the environment isn’t suitable then the practice should be halted.

Got banned from Electronic Arts’ forums? You’re banned from their games too.

[Updated: Looks like a forum mod may have overstepped with his statement. According to an article on Kotaku.com getting banned in the forums will NOT affect your ability to login to EA games afterall.]

An article over at the Ripten Video Game blog reports on a post by a community moderator in the Command and Conquer forums that suggests EA is taking a hard line against its customers. Basically if you say something in the official EA forums, any of them, that causes a moderator to ban your account then you won’t be able to login to any EA games you own:

Well, its actually going to be a bit nastier for those who get banned.

Your forum account will be directly tied to your Master EA Account, so if we ban you on the forums, you would be banned from the game as well since the login process is the same. And you’d actually be banned from your other EA games as well since its all tied to your account. So if you have SPORE and Red Alert 3 and you get yourself banned on our forums or in-game, well, your SPORE account would be banned to. It’s all one in the same, so I strongly reccommend people play nice and act mature.

All in all, we expect people to come on here and abide by our ToS. We hate banning people, it makes our lives a lot tougher, but its what we have to do.

Those banned will stay banned, but like most other internet services, its not that hard to create a new fake e-mail account. However, its a lot harder to get a new serial key =)

Nice to see they take such a light hearted approach to potentially locking video gamers out of the games they’ve purchased because EA didn’t like something they wrote on the forums. Considering the number of people who have been banned for expressing their anger at the company on the forums, well, I can see another potential class action lawsuit arising out of this decision. They really are working hard to ensure gamers have every reason to hate them as a company it seems.

Sent in by SEB reader “Matt”.

Almost two-thirds of companies in the U.S. don’t pay income taxes.

This is annoying to say the least:

Most companies in US avoid federal income taxes – News from The Associated Press

More than 38,000 foreign corporations had no tax liability in 2005 and 1.2 million U.S. companies, or 66.7 percent of them, paid no income tax, the GAO said. Combined, the companies had $2.5 trillion in sales. About 25 percent of large U.S. corporations – those with at least $250 million in assets or $50 million in receipts – did not pay corporate taxes.

The GAO said it analyzed data from the Internal Revenue Service, examining samples of corporate returns for the years 1998 through 2005. For 2005, for example, it reviewed 110,003 tax returns from among more than 1.2 million corporations doing business in the U.S.

Of course this has been the case for awhile and being reminded of it now probably won’t change anything, but there’s always the hope that it’ll annoy enough people to maybe get a few laws changed. Imagine how well the economy would be doing if the tax burden wasn’t solely carried by citizens.

Kid at your door with a sob story selling magazines? Yeah, you might want to read this…

Back when we were living in Canton I can recall a time when I opened the door to find a young twenty-something man standing there looking a little ragged around the edges who had a sob story about how he was selling magazine subscriptions as a way to get back on his feet and straighten out his life. It was your typical I’ve-made-mistakes-and-now-I’m-working-a-crappy-job-to-get-right story. A tad sad, but with some hope tossed in. The story seemed a little odd so I asked a couple of questions and it became clear he was shifting his tale to try and tell me what he thought I wanted to hear. I grew somewhat suspicious and decided to say no thanks. That’s when his story made an abrupt change to one of how he was actually working his way through college and had only invented the sob story because he wasn’t making his quota and needed badly to land a few sales. At that point I was more than a little annoyed so I said no thank you again and closed the door. I must say I had some lingering doubts on whether I was being too harsh on the kid.

As it turns out it’s quite possible his second story wasn’t any more true than his first one. Or, quite possibly, the reality was even worse:

What Mainstream Publishers Don’t Want You to Know About Door-to-Door Magazine Sales – Houston Press

In the eight months the Press investigated door-to-door magazine sales across the country, the industry has seen at least three murders, one rape, two attempted rapes, one stabbing, one attempted murder, one vehicle fatality and one attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl.

Interviews with former agents reveal a constant party atmosphere where agents have easy access — often thanks to their managers — to drugs. The agents come primarily from two populations: reprobates who need to leave wherever they are fast, and vulnerable kids from unstable families who believe that hopping into a van full of strangers is better than what awaits them at home.

[…] Agents are often driven across the country by managers whose driver’s licenses have been suspended or revoked. And while the industry’s trade group says it encourages member companies to conduct background checks, the crews are overflowing with agents with open warrants, extensive criminal histories and probation terms that prohibit them from leaving their home state. Since its inception in 1987, the National Field Selling Association has not only done nothing to clean up the crews, it has lobbied against proposed legislation that would implement the most basic of safety regulations and prohibit the hiring of underage employees.

While mainstream publishers and their trade group, the Magazine Publishers Association, say door-to-door sales account for a minuscule percentage of annual sales, this seemingly small percentage still translates into millions. It’s profitable enough to publishers like Condé Nast, Reader’s Digest and others that they still consider door-to-door sales a worthwhile venture in the 21st century. And without publishers’ participation, the industry would cease to exist. Which means, quite simply, that publishers have decided the collateral damage is worth the boost in circulation.

The following is a story of that collateral damage — of murder, rape, assault, overdoses and scamming — and the business decisions and lack of legislation that make it possible.

The whole article is an eye-opener and will probably make you inclined not to purchase magazine subscriptions sold door to door again. We’ve not been bothered by these sales crews since we left Canton and that’s probably because the neighborhoods where we are now are much more spread out compared to the density of the ones in Canton. I imagine once we get settled in Ann Arbor we’ll probably be seeing these kids again. Though I won’t have any lingering doubts about turning down the magazine offers from now on.

People get their panties in a twist over atheist billboard.

The True Believers™ down in Florida are suffering fainting spells over a billboard ad that declares all religions to be fairy tales:

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla.—It looked harmless enough, but the words on a billboard unnerved so many people that a popular restaurant nearby actually lost business. The billboard was on Colonial Drive near Old Cheney Highway.

Although the popular Straub’s Seafood restaurant often advertises on it, it wasn’t their billboard. The sign was taken down after Channel 9 started asking questions.

The billboard came down around 4:00 Friday afternoon and nearby business owners are relieved. Straub’s Restaurant can replace the sign with the night’s specials.

At first glance, the sign looked like a children’s cartoon, but the message next to the fairy princess stirred emotions.

“When you condemn all religions and say they are a fairytale, that is wrong,” said Rich Stormes, a nearby business owner.

Oh my goodness! Someone get the smelling salts! I think poor Mr. Stormes is about to have a case of the vapors! Fair warning! I’m including a copy of this terrible abomination immediately below! You may want to have small children and women leave the room before you look at it!


Click to embiggen!

The billboard went up a week before Easter and business at the restaurant went down.

“Easter Sunday is usually a busy good day,” said John Russel, an employee at Straub’s. “Easter Sunday business was down by two-thirds.”

Since the sign is so close, John Russel’s customers thought the restaurant paid for the billboard. To clear any confusion up, Russel put up a sign of his own and called MediaNet, the company who owns the billboard.

“It’s been causing us some problems. I think it’s causing a bit of controversy city-wide. People have been contacting the media,” Russel added.

I can at least sympathize with the business owner here. If folks were misconstruing that it was put up by his business when it wasn’t and business has dropped off since it went up as a result, well, I can’t really fault the guy for being upset about it. Still, I find the whole situation pretty funny.

For their part the company that owns the billboard claims it’s an illegal posting that was put up in the dead of night which is why they took it down. The local business owners don’t really buy that argument, but I suppose it is a possibility that can’t be ruled out short of some group coming forward and claiming they paid for it.

This was sent in by several people over the weekend.

Bankrupt: Our favorite junk dealers over at The Sharper Image

Read about it here: The Consumerist: Sharper Image Suspends Acceptance of Gift Cards Due to Bankruptcy

From the story:

Despite issuing a press release claiming that they “will continue to conduct business as usual”, The Shaper Image has suspended redemption of all gift certificates after filing for bankruptcy late on Tuesday.

After receiving several complaints that gift certificates were not being honored by the store the Consumerist was able to confirm via email with the Sharper Image’s corporate sales staff that the retailer is no longer selling or accepting the cards.

It seems The Sharper Image has filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of idiots, with their overpriced crap like a $4000 vibrating massage chair and their worthless Ionic Breeze. Anyhow, the nitty gritty of the story over on The Consumerist, is that after sending out a press release stating everything would be business as usual while they went under reorganization, they suspended all use of gift certificates for their stores, including manufacturers certificates – leaving many customers stuck with worthless $500 gift cards and the like.

Perhaps this will be a wakeup call to people to stop buying their overpriced, useless crap.

Interesting article: “The Pirates Can’t Be Stopped”

The folks at Portfolio.com have an interesting article on the ongoing war between media companies and the legions of file sharers. It focuses on how Media Defenders, a company that promises Hollywood that they’ll disrupt file sharing on P2P networks, was hacked by a long high school kid who exposed the company’s inner workings for all to see:

A teenager hacked into the outfit charged with protecting companies like Sony, Universal, and Activision from online piracy—the most daring exploit yet in the escalating war between fans and corporate giants. Guess which side is winning.

The first time Ethan broke into MediaDefender, he had no idea what he had found. It was his Christmas break, and the high schooler was hunkered down in the basement office of his family’s suburban home. The place was, as usual, a mess. Papers and electrical cords covered the floor and crowded the desk near his father’s Macs and his own five-year-old Hewlett-Packard desktop. While his family slept, Ethan would take over the office, and soon enough he’d start taking over the computer networks of companies around the world. Exploiting a weakness in MediaDefender’s firewall, he started poking around on the company’s servers. He found folder after folder labeled with the names of some of the largest media companies on the planet: News Corp., Time Warner, Universal.

[…] Ethan and I had first started talking over an untraceable prepaid phone that he carried with him. He eventually agrees to speak in person, as long as I protect his identity. (Ethan is a pseudonym.) We meet after school, in a bookstore that he says is near his house. He hands me a flash drive containing documents that I was later able to independently verify as internal, unpublished information belonging to MediaDefender. He also pulls out a well-creased sheet of paper bearing my name, the first five digits of my Social Security number, a few pictures of me, and addresses going back 10 years. “I had to check,” he says. Then he asks me about another Roth he has been researching; it turns out to be my brother. “I was just starting to dig in to him,” he says. “There’s a lot there.” Ethan is a handsome kid, with broad shoulders and a preppy style, and is unfailingly polite, cleaning up the table after I buy him a coffee and patiently walking me through the intricate details of Microsoft security procedures.

[…] In the spring, however, he decided to explore the company again. Over the next few months, Ethan says, he figured out how to read MediaDefender’s email, listen to its phone calls, and access just about any of the company’s computers he wanted to browse. He uncovered the salaries of the top engineers as well as names and contact information kept by C.E.O. and co-founder Randy Saaf (with notations of who in the videogame industry is an “asshole” and which venture capitalists didn’t come through with financing). Ethan also figured out how the firm’s pirate-fighting software works. He passed on his expertise to a fellow hacker, who broke into one of MediaDefender’s servers and commandeered it so that it could be used for denial-of-service attacks.

The kid has a future in IT Security if he doesn’t end up getting busted for some of the hacking he’s done in the past. This was all done by a single high school kid in his spare time over the course of months and he’s only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of pirates who are fighting an arms race against the companies who would be Hollywood’s gate keepers. Reading the full seven page article it quickly becomes clear that the pirates are winning and the best hope that the entertainment industry has is to change its business models to accommodate what people really want, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. The most telling example of this conflict comes from an account in the article about a small indie film that benefited greatly from being pirated:

A new independent movie called Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth showed up on one of the file-sharing sites in November. The film’s producers had no idea it had even been pirated; all they knew was that suddenly its popularity was skyrocketing. Their websites received 23,000 hits in less than two weeks, and the film’s ranking among the most-searched-for movies on the internet movie-tracking site IMDB went from 11,235 to 15. Eric Wilkinson, the film’s co-producer, wrote a fan letter to the site responsible for driving traffic to the pirated film: “Our independent movie had next to no advertising budget and very little going for it until somebody ripped one of the DVD screeners and put the movie online for all to download…. People like our movie and are talking about it, all thanks to piracy on the Net!” He requested that fans buy the DVD as well and added, “In the future, I will not complain about file sharing. you have helped put this little movie on the map!!!! When I make my next picture, I just may upload the movie on the Net myself!”

When I try reaching Wilkinson, though, I’m told that the producer is not available. Instead, the movie’s director, Richard Schenkman, returns the call. “Eric was clearly being sarcastic,” Schenkman says about the offer to upload the film. “That’s why he put in the exclamation points.” I tell him his partner certainly sounded enthusiastic about file sharing. “Look, I have mixed feelings about this,” Schenkman replies. “As a filmmaker, I love that people love the movie and have seen the movie. But as a person who literally has a hunk of his own life savings in the movie, I don’t want to be ripped off by people illegally downloading the movie. Some of these downloaders want to believe they’re fighting the man. But we’re all just people who work for a living.” He acknowledges, however, that DVD sales of the film increased after the leak, and that people have even been pledging money on a site the filmmaker set up to accept donations in markets where the DVD isn’t for sale. “I’m not saying I have the answers,” Schenkman says.

If anyone had the answers the problem would already be solved. What the industry needs to do is more experimentation to see what works, but they’d rather just sure their customers thinking that it’ll scare everyone else straight. A tactic that clearly doesn’t work as file sharing has grown in leaps and bounds year after year in spite of all the lawsuits.

Coming soon: Depositing checks with your scanner.

We already do the majority of my banking electronically. From the direct depositing of my paycheck to online bill paying we’re already pretty wired, but every now and then we still have to stop by a branch location to deposit a paper check I’ve gotten from someone. Now word has it that I might be able to just use my scanner instead:

Soon you will be able to deposit checks by scanning them at home and sending them electronically to your bank. No need to visit a branch or even an ATM.

This is possible because of the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, passed in 2003, which allows banks to exchange electronic images of checks. Already about half of all checks are scanned by businesses or the banks they are deposited into and not shipped in bags back to the banks on which they were drawn.

Fiserv, the big transaction services company, has announced new software that will enable banks to let home users deposit checks by scanning them. It already has a similar service for small and medium businesses. USAA, the financial services company that serves the military, has offered deposits through scanners for two years, but the idea has not yet caught on.

The time is right for such a service, said Rodney Springhetti, a Fiserv vice president of business development. The technology has been debugged through several years of working with businesses, and meanwhile consumers increasingly have scanners at home, largely in the form of all-in-one printer units.

I didn’t know that USAA already supported scanning your checks and that gives a bit more weight to considering using them for our credit union, we already get our automobile insurance through USAA and had been talking about switching to their credit union offering. How is it that I can be a USAA member when I’ve never been in the armed forces? Turns out my wife is eligible because of her father having served in the military. Technically my biological father did as well, but seeing as he’s been dead for 35 years I doubt I’d still qualify through him.

The idea of being able to deposit a check using my scanner is very attractive indeed. I’m sure it would be of help to folks like my parents who are getting older and thus more limited in their mobility and who still use credit unions with branches over an hour away from where they currently live. Still I can see where concerns about fraud would be high with this method and the industry sees it as well:

Fraud, of course, is an issue. Where there are scanners, of course, there may be Photoshop. And a scanner can’t detect all the anti-fraud features now built into paper checks, such as special stock and watermarks. Banking groups are developing new anti-fraud technologies that can be detected by scanners, but these have not been widely deployed. Unlike credit cards, which have strict federal anti-fraud rules, each bank sets its own policies for check fraud.

Still, Mr. Springhetti, said there are ways to combat fraud. Fiserv and others do have software meant to analyze images for signs of fakery. And there are other models that look for suspicious patterns of behavior that may indicate fraud.

What do you guys think? Good idea or massive opportunity for free money to the unscrupulous?

RIAA now saying that you can’t legally rip CDs you own to your PC.

Those crazy bastards at the RIAA have finally gone off the deep end. In an ongoing lawsuit they are now claiming that ripping a CD which you legally purchased is a violation of copyright law regardless of whether or not you actually distribute the files to anyone else:

Download Uproar: Record Industry Goes After Personal Use – washingtonpost.com

The industry’s lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.

“I couldn’t believe it when I read that,” says Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who represents six clients who have been sued by the RIAA. “The basic principle in the law is that you have to distribute actual physical copies to be guilty of violating copyright. But recently, the industry has been going around saying that even a personal copy on your computer is a violation.”

RIAA’s hard-line position seems clear. Its Web site says: “If you make unauthorized copies of copyrighted music recordings, you’re stealing. You’re breaking the law and you could be held legally liable for thousands of dollars in damages.”

Whether customers may copy their CDs onto their computers—an act at the very heart of the digital revolution—has a murky legal foundation, the RIAA argues. The industry’s own Web site says that making a personal copy of a CD that you bought legitimately may not be a legal right, but it “won’t usually raise concerns,” as long as you don’t give away the music or lend it to anyone.

The Howell case was not the first time the industry has argued that making a personal copy from a legally purchased CD is illegal. At the Thomas trial in Minnesota, Sony BMG’s chief of litigation, Jennifer Pariser, testified that “when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.” Copying a song you bought is “a nice way of saying ‘steals just one copy,’ ” she said.

The industry “will continue to bring lawsuits” against those who “ignore years of warnings,” RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy said in a statement. “It’s not our first choice, but it’s a necessary part of the equation. There are consequences for breaking the law.” And, perhaps, for firing up your computer.

So it’s basically the RIAA’s position that if you want to have a digital copy of your music to put on your PC or play on your iPod then you’d best be ready to pony up the additional cost of buying the files from an approved retailer because ripping them off that CD you spent money on is against the law.

Given the RIAA’s attitude and tactics it should be no wonder then that album sales are down a whopping 20% over last Christmas:

To some music lovers, the fact that Josh Groban’s Noel was the highest-selling album of 2007 is all the proof they need that major-label music is dying. To shareholders and label execs, though, the numbers are more important, and the numbers are grim: music sales are down 21 percent this Christmas season.

The recent news suggests that people are turning away from the CD as a Christmas present, due in large part to the rise of online music services like iTunes, eMusic, and the Amazon MP3 shop. Now that non-DRMed music is widely available from many popular artists, giving the gift of digital downloads can be an attractive option for holiday shoppers. Certainly it’s becoming more mainstream; even my local supermarket now stocks iTunes gift cards.

Music buying has certainly been migrating online, and the spectacular decline of CD sales is putting extra pressure on labels to move more online copies of the music they publish. This is clearly one of the reasons that Warner, traditionally a staunch DRM defender, agreed to strip DRM from its tracks offered on Amazon; it needed to do something (anything) to shore up flagging sales.

In the future it may not matter if the RIAA thinks ripping a CD is illegal as there may not be any CDs of music to buy. You would think that after four years of suing their own customers, putting Grokster and Napster out of business, and still not making a dent in the amount of songs shared online that they see the writing on the wall. Well, it is starting to sink in with the big music labels as Sony BMG is the only one left still putting out DRM protected digital files, but it’s going to take more changes that simply getting rid of DRM for these companies to survive in the future. They’re going to have to change their business models. Even that could end up being moot if more and more artists follow the trend of just releasing their music to fans directly and making their money off of concert tours.

Update: I need to put a clarification in here. It turns out the Washington Post article has caused quite a stir and the RIAA wants to let folks know that the defendant in the case in question is being sued because he placed the MP3s he ripped into the shared folder of a P2P program:

News that the RIAA, which earned widespread opprobrium for its prosecution of Jammie Thomas, is flexing its muscles against consumers, was enough to make the blogosphere’s collective blood boil. If accepted, the argument that merely ripping a CD to MP3 for personal use is illegal would cut to the heart of the fair-use exception of copyright law.

The only problem: No such claim was made. What RIAA lawyer Ira Schwartz wrote in a supplemental brief was: “Once Defendant converted Plaintiffs’ recording into the compressed .MP3 format and they are in his shared folder, they are no longer the authorized copies distributed by Plaintiffs.”

The critical phrase there is “shared folder” because the rest of the brief makes clear that the RIAA is claiming that Howell not only ripped his CDs but also put them in his shared folder in Kazaa, thus making them available for worldwide distribution. The RIAA has successfully argued that mere presence of copyright files in a shared folder constitutes “distribution” under copyright law.

Which is all fine and good, but that doesn’t change the fact that the RIAA has stated on more than one occasion that CD rips are “technically” unauthorized copies and that when someone rips a CD they’re essentially “stealing only one copy.” This leaves open the door for them to take that last step and try and sue someone who was engaged in activity considered Fair Use. So while it’s true that in the case in question they’re not suing because the dude made MP3s for his personal use, that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future as they’ve specifically gone out of their way to make statements leaving that as an option.