The US government is secretly mixing chemicals into the water supply that are supposed to make us immune against chemical weapons. What sounds like another crazy conspiracy theory is actually - no, not the truth, but part of an underground marketing campaign for the upcoming Nine Inch Nails (NIN) album Year Zero.

(Screenshot snippet of the campaign website

The album is promoted with what viral marketing experts call an Alternative Reality Game. Think of it as an internet-based game of paper-chase, with obscure web sites, answering machines and clues on NIN tour t-shirts all being part of a giant, mysterious puzzle.

NIN fans and Alternative Reality Games players alike have been forming global, spontaneous collaborations to figure out what the game really is about. They have been exchanging clues on literally thousands of message board postings. They have been scouring the bathrooms of clubs hosting NIN gigs after mysterious flash drives started appearing, containing MP3s from the upcoming album along with additional clues. And they have been swapping these MP3s online after they discovered that some of the audio files contain hidden messages themselves.

A German blogger by the name of Christoph Boecken wanted to take part in the game as well. He didn't want to get accused of spreading unauthorized MP3s though, which is why he posted a Flash player on his blog that allowed streaming, but not downloading one of the songs.

A few days later Boecken received a letter from a well-known German law firm that handles piracy cases for NIN's label Universal Music, accusing him of copyright infringement. The letter didn't only demand him taking down the MP3 file in question, but also paying 500 Euro (about 675 USD) to cover the expenses for sending this letter. Invoices like this are regularly part of cease and desist letters in Germany.

Boecken felt betrayed by Universal. After all, he had helped them with their marketing - and now he was supposed to pay for his efforts? He wrote a couple of frustrated rants on his blog, but eventually decided to pay the money because hiring a lawyer and dragging out the case could have been much more expensive.

By last week a growing number of German bloggers became aware of his case. They started spreading the word, writing emails to Universal and calling up the label in person. Finally they must have gotten through to someone who realized that lawyers aren't supposed to be part of your marketing. Universal Germany got in touch with Boecken over the weekend. They apologized to him, promised to pay back his expenses and give him a chance to meet the Nine Inch Nails backstage.

Ende gut, alles gut, as they say in Germany. A happy end for everyone. Universal Germany definitely made up for it's mistakes, and Boecken made peace with a band that he - while still being a big fan - started to have mixed feelings about.

But unfortunately this isn't the end of the story. It looks like the efforts to clear the blogosphere from NIN MP3s may have been internationally coordinated. The music and entertainment gossip blog Idolator got an email from the RIAA, demanding to take down one of the virally marketed NIN MP3s, just about at the same time when Boecken got his costly C&D letter. Idolator didn't have to pay up, but they were pissed nonetheless:

"Are they just working at cross-purposes with Nine Inch Nails' marketing consultants, or is this whole scheme yet another attempt to simultaneously make music bloggers look dumb and exploit their ability to get songs "out there"? We're sort of disgusted either way, which means that everyone loses."

Of course there is another explanation for this whole mess: Alternative Reality Games tend to be surrounded by secrecy. Companies regularly don't disclose their involvement to participating players out of the fear of spoiling the game. Maybe in this case they should have at least told the RIAA.

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