So where exactly did the bogus “$72 trillion” claim come from?

By | Published on Tuesday 29 May 2012


So, as previously reported, last week a link to a news story was doing the rounds of the social web bearing the headline ‘RIAA Thinks LimeWire Owes $72 Trillion in Damages’.

It was an intriguing title because [a] it looked like the Recording Industry Association Of America was being an arse again, and that’s always amusing, [b] the RIAA and LimeWire actually settled more or less exactly a year ago, so it would be interesting to know what went wrong, and [c] $72 trillion is more money that there is in the world.

So intriguing was the headline, in fact, that the NME picked the story up and ran with it, citing as its original source for the bold claim a website called And once the NME had run the story, several other sites repeated it (actually, it’s possible some of them actually ran the story before the NME) and so it became ‘proper news’. But there were two important facts about the original Computer World story worth noting. First, it was over a year old. And second, it wasn’t a Computer World story. Well, not exclusively.

As noted on Friday, the Computer World report that the NME and various other media linked to dated from March 2011, something the date stamp at the top of the story confirmed. At that time the record industry, having defeated its long time P2P enemy LimeWire in the US courts the previous year, was preparing its damages claim.

The RIAA noted that, under US copyright law, a court can award up to $150,000 in damages for every infringement a third party commits. LimeWire was being held liable for all the infringement committed by its users, and the trade body reckoned at least 11,000 of its members’ tracks had been illegally shared via the service. As technically damages were due for every single time a file-transfer occurred, that’s how the record industry trade body argued that trillions in damages might be due.

As it happens, the judge hearing the case said that size of claim was ludicrous, and LimeWire and the RIAA subsequently agreed last May to a more modest settlement of $105 million.

So, a fourteen month old story does the rounds on Twitter and gets picked up by news media for a second time, those journalists forgetting [a] that we all wrote about this story a year ago and [b] to check the date at the top of the source story. Simple. Though, as some CMU readers have pointed out, the Computer World report that was incorrectly picked up as a new story didn’t actually carry the eye-grabbing $72 trillion figure. Rather, it spoke about the RIAA pushing for “trillions” in damages; which is still a ludicrous claim on the trade body’s part, but not more money than exists in the world.

So where did the $72 trillion figure come from? The author of the original Computer World story, noting this discrepancy in a new article this weekend, proposed: “The NME picked up [my] story from last year and for some reason ran it this week as a new one, albeit with an additional twist. The website, based apparently on some of its own calculations, concluded that the RIAA was claiming it was owed $72 trillion in damages from LimeWire for music piracy”.

But was it the NME which lumped for the $72 trillion figure? Interestingly, at the same time Computer World ran its original RIAA damages story last March other media were, obviously, also reporting on the trade body’s claim, and in some of those other reports the figure $75 trillion was bandied around, in particular in this article on the similar-sounding-to-Computer-World website PC World. And, actually, it was the PC World article, and not the Computer World piece, that we here at CMU saw being touted around on the social networks 24 hours before the NME story first appeared.

So, perhaps the NME piece not only reported on a fourteen month old news story as if it were new, but also didn’t credit the right source. Although that wouldn’t quite explain how the 2011 story went with $75 trillion, while last week’s reports said $72 trillion.

Anyway, to reconfirm, the RIAA is not going after LimeWire for more money than there is on the planet, or indeed any more money than that it agreed to with the now defunct file-sharing company last year. Instead the trade body that everyone loves to hate has been enjoying the opportunity to be justifiably high and mighty about the way it has been misrepresented on the internet.

Its spokeswoman told Computer World: “This was disturbing to see. We would hope that there be basic standards that reporters and bloggers adhere to, like doing original research, checking with sources referenced, before just re-posting a story and accepting everything as fact. That means also actually attaching a byline to a post too. The standard should not be ‘we’ll post whatever and correct it if it’s wrong’. Get it right in the first place, do the homework”.

Though, as the trade body that pursued an incredibly expensive and totally counterproductive sue-the-fans policy against file-sharers for so long, arguably setting back the whole digital music market five years, and a policy that even the body’s own former chief has subsequently admitted was misguided, perhaps it would have been better if the RIAA had said, more simply, “see, everyone makes mistakes”.