What is the RIAA?

wiseGEEK Writer

The RIAA is an acronym for the Recording Industry Association of America, which is composed of large companies that oversee the recording and distribution of music in the US. Approximately 90% of recording companies or distributors are members of the RIAA. The association’s goals are now primarily steered toward copyright protection. This is a big change from the establishment of the RIAA in the 1950s, where the biggest concern was standardizing the quality of vinyl records, and later cassette tapes.

The RIAA oversees the recording and distribution of music.
The RIAA oversees the recording and distribution of music.

Much of the shift in the RIAA, now under the guidance of Mitch Bainwol, is due to the frequent illegal downloads or copying of music that is copyright protected. When Napster first became available in the late 1990s, most people suddenly had the opportunity to download music without paying for it. Also, burning discs and copying albums became more frequent with advances in computer technology.

In the 1950s, the RIAA was concerned with standardizing the quality of vinyl records, and later cassette tapes.
In the 1950s, the RIAA was concerned with standardizing the quality of vinyl records, and later cassette tapes.

The RIAA actively sought to have laws passed to ban file-sharing programs like Napster, as well as to tighten the restriction on copyright laws. In the early first decade of 2000, several laws were enacted to increase the penalties for those who infringed on copyright law by illegally copying music, either from a computer source or purchased CDs. The RIAA has also targeted in particular college age youth in a series of campaigns to discourage illegal downloads.

The RIAA has guidelines that singers must follow when recording music.
The RIAA has guidelines that singers must follow when recording music.

Not all find the current mission of the RIAA to be logical or reasonable. Critics point to increased CD sales during the Napster era, and conclude that restrictions on sharing or free downloads are actually contrary to the RIAA goals of helping musical artists and recording studios. Critics also claim the RIAA is little more than an organized crime business which rips off artists, who get relatively little compensation for the sale of CDs, while it fixes prices of CDs for high profits for recording labels.

RIAA opponents point to lawsuits for copyright infringement against unsuspecting people. One lawsuit was enacted against an 83 year old woman, another against a 12 year old girl, and a third against a woman in her 60s who had never used a computer. These and other lawsuits were criticized by many and did damage to the credibility of the RIAA.

In 2003, the RIAA issued an amnesty, deciding not to pursue those who had practiced illegal downloads in the past. Those who would come clean about previous copyright infringement would not be prosecuted if they promised not to do it again. Few people actually responded to this offer, and the amnesty ended a year later, since amnesty from the RIAA did not protect one against civil suits by individual record companies or artists.

In a less controversial form, the RIAA is also responsible, when requested, for tracking sales of records, resulting in records being labeled “Gold” or “Platinum” depending upon numbers sold. Slightly more controversial at times is the unyielding support of artistic freedom as interpreted in the 1st amendment. Many find this one of the finer points of the RIAA because it allows for freedom of speech and expression, and will support artists who are attacked for controversial lyrics.

The RIAA tracks the sale of music CDs.
The RIAA tracks the sale of music CDs.

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Discussion Comments


@Soulfox -- but the RIAA did help facilitate those downloads. It is easier to view the RIAA's tactics to stop copyright violations independently of the medium -- the RIAA doesn't like people ripping music off of CDs and sharing it no more than it likes people buying downloads legitimately and sharing those.

In fact, one might argue that the RIAA's alarm over copyright violations allowed for legitimate companies to sell songs on the Internet. People wanted to download music and not violate the law, and online music services are the result of that. Had the RIAA simply wanted to preserve lucrative CD sales, the company would have fought against online music vendors, too. The group didn't do that.


@Melonlity -- a lot of the criticisms of the RIAA has to do with the organization's apparent inability to embrace change. Technology has pretty well rendered compact discs obsolete because people want to download music these days. We know this to be true based on the number of legitimate, online sites that have popped up over the years and sell individual songs and even full albums for a low price.

The RIAA, instead of helping set up that system, spent its time suing people. Some people who criticize the organization say the group should have helped facilitate legal, online downloads instead of trying to defend an obsolete system.


It seems terribly unfair to attack the RIAA for trying to keep people from downloading music and not paying for it. What else is the group supposed to do? Allow people to effectively steal from artists? The RIAA is charged with protecting the interests of those artists and it would not be doing its job if it failed to throw fits about copyright violations.

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