Mitch Bainwol’s Eight Years At RIAA: A Mixed Record Of Fighting Piracy

Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, has announced he’s leaving the record labels’ main lobbying group to take a position representing automobile manufacturers. It’s the end of an era at the RIAA, where Bainwol has presided over a number of policy and legal successes. But another legacy of the Bainwol years-a long campaign of prosecuting individual music downloaders-was decidedly less fruitful.

Bainwol has CEO of the RIAA since 2003, and in that time the group proved its ability to use the court system to shut down and bankrupt even wildly popular file-sharing services. The labels created a small graveyard of peer-to-peer services like Grokster, KaZaa and Limewire.

In the Grokster case, RIAA lawyers even convinced the Supreme Court to essentially create a new form of copyright infringement-“inducement”-which has become the strategy of choice to go after a new wave of services. That includes the cyberlocker services that the entertainment industry believes are heralding a new wave of piracy.

Despite those legal victories, illegal distribution of music has grown on the internet. And another legacy of the Bainwol era-the RIAA’s massive campaign of lawsuits against individual downloaders-has produced largely Pyrrhic victories. The RIAA spent tens of millions suing downloaders, without much to show for it at the end of the day. The group stopped prosecuting individual downloaders in 2009, but has continued to pursue online services it believes encourage piracy.

The music labels are hoping that a new “six strikes” agreement reached with ISP’s will prove to be a more effective technique for curbing illegal downloads. That plan was just announced last month, to no small amount of controversy; it’s too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the new tactic.

But the RIAA’s accomplishments under Bainwol went beyond just fighting piracy. It took many years, but record labels finally struck agreements to enable a variety of competing subscription-music services, including MOG, Rhapsody, Rdio, and now Spotify.

As RIAA chief, Bainwol was one of the best-paid lobbyists in Washington, reportedly earning over $2 million annually by 2008.

The music group said today in a statement that its longtime president, Cary Sherman, will take now over as CEO. Sherman joined the RIAA as its general counsel in 1997.