RIAA sues 261 music uploaders

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced Monday that it has filed civil lawsuits against 261 people across the U.S. and will seek thousands of dollars in damages from the defendants, who have each allegedly uploaded an average of 1,000 songs to peer-to-peer networks.

At the same time, the RIAA offered amnesty to music sharers who promise to stop uploading or downloading copyrighted songs.

The 261 lawsuits, the first lawsuits filed by the RIAA against peer-to-peer (P-to-P) users, have been filed across the U.S., and the RIAA will look for monetary settlements in most cases, said Cary Sherman, RIAA president. The RIAA has sent about 1,500 subpoenas seeking the names of music sharers, and it has already settled with a handful of file sharers for around US$3,000 each, but because the RIAA has taken the next step of filing lawsuits, it will likely seek more damages in these 261 lawsuits, Sherman said.

The lawsuits were filed against users of several P-to-P services, including Kazaa, Gnutella and Grokster, Sherman said, and the RIAA is planning more lawsuits against users of other P-to-P services. "There will be subsequent waves of litigation," he promised.

The lawsuits target music uploaders in an attempt to cut off the source of much of the unauthorized music available on P-to-P services, Sherman said. In April, the RIAA filed lawsuits against four students who allegedly set up file-trading networks on university campuses, but this is the first time the RIAA has sued individual members of P-to-P services.

"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," added Sherman, who was joined by a dozen songwriters and music executives in a telephone press conference. "But when you are being victimized by illegal activity, there comes a time when you have to stand up and take appropriate action."

Sharman Networks, the owner of the Kazaa P-to-P service, didn't have an immediate comment on the lawsuits.

In the RIAA's file-sharing amnesty program, called the "Clean Slate Program," P-to-P users who haven't yet been investigated by the RIAA can take all the copyrighted music files off their computers and sign an affidavit promising not to share unauthorized music again. In exchange, the RIAA will promise not to prosecute those people.

Asked why file traders would want to give their names to the RIAA, Sherman said the amnesty program offers them a clean slate for past file-trading activities.

"We have basically offered this amnesty program because we were contacted by people who wanted the assurance, who wanted the comfort of knowing that they wouldn't be subject to a lawsuit for their past behavior," Sherman said. "We wanted to offer those people a mechanism to gain that comfort. But if people would prefer to simply stop engaging in the illegal activity, we certainly encourage that."

People who make the promise and then continue to share music will likely be sued for willful copyright violations, Sharman added.

On Friday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) discouraged music traders from giving the RIAA their names, saying that other copyright holders could still file lawsuits even if the RIAA granted amnesty. Sherman said the RIAA has been the only music industry organization threatening lawsuits, so the amnesty would be a near guarantee against a copyright lawsuit against someone signing the pledge.

But the RIAA's amnesty program is offered only to people who haven't yet been investigated by the RIAA, said Jason Schultz, an EFF staff attorney. Because subpoenas allowed under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act allow subpoenas of Internet service providers, some file traders may not know if they have been investigated by the RIAA, Schultz said.

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 said. "If you don't know, you're doing all their work for them," Schultz added.

Schultz called 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 said. "This is a desperate move, and it's just going to alienate more people."

Asked if any of the potential settlements would go back to artists, Sherman said it wouldn't. Instead, the money will go back into the RIAA's copyright enforcement efforts.

Hugh Prestwood, a country music songwriter who was part of the press conference, said some big music artists are worried about alienating fans, so they've been silent about music sharing. "I think the media has done an amazingly rotten job of communicating to the public that there is harm being affected on artists, particularly songwriters," Prestwood said. "I think the artists are entirely supportive of this thing, but many of them are reluctant to speak out in public at this point."

Sherman pointed to the RIAA's http://www.musicunited.org/ Web site, where artists including Brooks and Dunn, Dixie Chicks, Britney Spears and Stevie Wonder have supplied statements opposing unauthorized music sharing.

The RIAA lawsuits are filed against the Internet account holders where the music trading is allegedly being done. In some cases, parents may have been sued for their children's file-trading activity, Sherman said. The RIAA tracked the uploads by joining the P-to-P services and downloading files from people's hard drives, he added.

"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 said. "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 added. "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."

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