Under The Microscope

The RIAA v. Steve Jobs

It may be difficult to imagine, but back at the turn of the millennium, the simple right to record audio on your computer was not well-established. Though the precedent of time shifting existed for television, space shifting was still an emerging idea. The acronym for the Recording Industry Association of America, RIAA, was something of a new four-letter word due to their hostility toward new ideas. In addition to shutting down Napster, they also attempted to squash the first hardware MP3 player.

This had an impact on our marketing for the first version of Audio Hijack. Rather than focusing on the app’s recording functionality, we highlighted use cases like adding an equalizer to movies. We knew recording was useful, but the app’s ability to apply audio effects anywhere on the Mac carried much less legal peril.

At that time, our sales were slow enough that we often skimmed incoming orders to learn about who was buying. On September 30, 2003, exactly one year after we opened our virtual doors, an order with an RIAA email address came through. That put a damper on our first anniversary celebrations, as we had full knowledge of the organization’s litigious history. We were naturally concerned that they were aware of our product. Unfortunately, there was nothing for us to do but feel uneasy and await their next move.

It never came. We never heard a word from the RIAA, nor their lawyers. As time passed without any trouble, we eventually came to assume that they recognized our tool’s many legitimate fair uses. We continued development of Audio Hijack, leaning in to its audio recording abilities. That focus led to it being a premier solution for podcasters, both then and now.

Earlier this month, however, we heard a chilling story. It comes from the Podfather himself, Adam Curry, who was instrumental in helping podcasts take off in the mid-2000s. He’s also a long-time Audio Hijack user and supporter, one who provided us with many helpful suggestions in the early years. Recently, Adam gave an interview detailing his efforts to modernize the podcasting format. Therein, he told a story about the origins of podcasts in iTunes, and a conversation he had with Steve Jobs circa 2005:

And in that very meeting, Steve asked: “How do you do your recording?”. We didn’t really have any tools to record, there was not much going on at the time. But the Mac had an application called Audio Hijack Pro, and it was great because we could create audio chains with compressors, and replicate a bit of studio work.

Eddy Cue said: “The RIAA wants us to disable Audio Hijack Pro, because with it you could record any sound off of your Mac, any song, anything”. Steve then turned to me and said: “Do you need this to create these podcasts?”. I said: “Currently, yes!”. So Steve Jobs told them to get lost, and I thought: “Hey man, thanks, Steve’s on my side. That’s cool.”.

Even 18 years on, I find this story rather terrifying. If not for an offhand conversation in which we had no involvement, things could have turned out very differently for our company.

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