Music Labels Declare War on File SwappersRIAA files 261 lawsuits, promises more--and offers limited amnesty for repentant swappers.
Liane Cassavoy, PCWorld.com
The Recording Industry Association of America has filed lawsuits against 261 people, accusing them of pirating digital music, and threatens to sue thousands more as part of an intensified effort to clamp down on digital music copyright infringement. However, the group has also announced an amnesty program for individuals who want to stave off lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the digital civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation is warning individuals to be cautious about admitting to illegal activity, even under an amnesty offer. Users could still be subject to legal action, the EFF says.
The RIAA's first round of lawsuits is filed against the most egregious offenders, those who were sharing more than 1000 songs using the Kazaa, iMesh, Gnutella, and Blubster file-sharing networks, said Carey Sherman, RIAA president, at a press briefing on Monday. He declined to give any details about the individuals facing charges, saying the lawsuits are filed in a variety of jurisdictions across the country. People will face federal civil charges of copyright violation.
"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," Sherman said in an RIAA statement. "But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action. We simply cannot allow online piracy to continue destroying the livelihoods of artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers, and everyone in the music industry."
These lawsuits are just the first of subsequent waves of litigation, Sherman says, noting the RIAA expects to file thousands more in the coming months. Future lawsuits will go beyond the peer-to-peer services targeted in Monday's lawsuits.
Nor are these the RIAA's first such suits. The organization settled similar charges last spring against four students, who paid fines up to $17,000 for their song-swapping activities.
The RIAA has already entered into a "handful" of settlement agreements, Sherman says. Users who agreed to settle are likely to face approximately $3000 in fines, although those who settle after lawsuits are filed will likely face steeper fines, he adds.
Users who fight the charges could end up paying far heftier fines. Copyright law allows the court to set fines between $750 and $150,000 per copyrighted work infringed, and the RIAA will defer to the court's discretion, Sherman says. He says the industry organization will use the money gathered through settlements and fines to further its education and antipiracy initiatives.
The 261 users first targeted are those who upload music to the peer-to-peer services, but Sherman did not rule out future charges against downloaders.
"Going after uploaders is the first way to attack this problem," Sherman said Monday. It's a way to reduce the number of files available on peer-to-peer networks, and to migrate users to legitimate music services, he added.
The lawsuits were filed only as a last resort, according to the RIAA, and were filed only after a multiyear effort to curb piracy.
"Our goal is not to be vindictive or punitive," Sherman says. That's why the RIAA is offering what it calls "our version of an olive branch"--its amnesty program. It was launched in response to inquiries from file swappers who want to change their ways, but also want the comfort of knowing they won't be facing litigation, he says. The amnesty program lets users voluntarily come forward and vow to stop illegal sharing of files.
Users already facing lawsuits are not eligible for the amnesty.
Users seeking amnesty from potential lawsuits as part of the RIAA's Clean Slate program must vow to destroy all of the copyrighted sound recordings that they may have downloaded in the past, in whatever format they exist (including on CDs). They also must promise never to download copyrighted works in the future, and never to allow anyone else to do so on their computer. They also must promise never to upload or illegally share copyrighted works in the future.
Repentant song swappers must fill out the Clean Slate affidavit provided on the RIAA's Music United site, have it notarized, and send it in to the RIAA.
The risk for repentant file-swappers is that they don't know if they are under RIAA investigation, says Jason Schultz, an EFF staff attorney.
If you've already been investigated by the RIAA without your knowledge, you'd be admitting illegal action and opening yourself up to an RIAA copyright lawsuit, Schultz says. "If you don't know, you're doing all their work for them."
Schultz calls the RIAA lawsuits an "unfortunate event" that won't result in the RIAA's ultimate goal of getting artists and songwriters paid for their work. "They've chosen to turn consumers into criminals, tried to litigate them into submission, and somehow drag them back into the record store," Schultz says. "This is a desperate move, and it's just going to alienate more people."
But the RIAA insists the piracy battle has come to this. The group is filing its suits against the ISP customer when an account is identified as involved in heavy file-trading. In some cases, parents may have been sued for their children's file-trading activity, Sherman says.
"We think it's a very good thing for parents to be aware of what their 14-year-old kids are doing in their rooms," Sherman says. "There's no reason they should be accepting illegal downloading any more they would accept illegal shoplifting, and you would expect them to take some action."
"We expect to hear people say, 'It wasn't me, it was my kid,'" he adds. "Well, if they prefer that the lawsuit be amended to name the kid, we can certainly do that. But somebody has to assume responsibility for illegal activity."
Grant Gross of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.