RIAA: P-to-P vendors must filter content

The U.S. recording industry called on peer-to-peer (P-to-P) software vendors to filter out copyright content and a U.S. senator pressed the distributor of the popular Kazaa P-to-P software to cut off users who violate its end user license agreement during a Senate hearing on file trading Tuesday.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, asked Alan Morris [cq], executive vice president of Kazaa owner Sharman Networks Ltd., in Sydney, Australia why his company couldn't shut down users who violate the Kazaa license agreement not to share copyright files.

Morris, testifying at a hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said it was technically impossible to cut off users of the software who trade copyright files or to filter content to ban copyright works from being traded by Kazaa users, as the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) called for.

The hearing on file trading featured two popular rap music artists, LL Cool J and Chuck D, debating on the opposite side of the issue, and a college student who told how she had to raise money on the Internet to pay a settlement after the RIAA brought a file-trading lawsuit against her. Levin and the RIAA called for the P-to-P vendors to make reforms while two Republican senators questioned the RIAA's tactics of suing hundreds of P-to-P users.

When Levin asked about shutting down customers who misuse software, Morris disagreed with witness Chris Gladwin [cq], chief operating officer of FullAudio Corp., who told Levin it was technically possible. After the Kazaa Media Desktop is downloaded, Sharman Networks has no control over its users, Morris said, much like Microsoft Corp. doesn't have control over how people use the Outlook e-mail software package.

"If you had the power to enforce it, would you?" Levin asked.

Morris answered: "If a court of competence stated that there had been an infringement, then we would certainly look at it."

Earlier in the hearing, RIAA chairman and chief executive officer Mitch Bainwol called on Kazaa and other P-to-P software vendors to institute three reforms: change the default settings so users aren't unwittingly sharing private documents, include "meaningful" warnings about trading copyright content, and filter unauthorized copyright works off P-to-P networks.

"The file-sharing business must become responsible corporate citizens ... moving beyond excuses," Bainwol said. "If the Kazaas of the world can institute three common-sense reforms, lawsuits can be avoided, the record industry will be healthier, there will be more jobs, consumers will get the music they want."

Kazaa and other P-to-P services say they're already following the first two recommendations, but Morris said it would be impossible for Kazaa to filter content based on whether it's copyright. Kazaa's adult filter can catch pornographic phrases in titles or meta-tags in files, he said after the hearing, but Kazaa has no way to filter the actual content of files.

"If you're going to block the titles of every song, every word in every copyright song, every copyright movie, and every copyright book, you might has well input the whole dictionary," said Philip Corwin, Sharman's lawyer, in an interview after the hearing.

While Kazaa defended its tactics, subcommittee chairman Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, questioned the RIAA decision to sue 261 alleged file uploaders earlier this month. Coleman and Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, questioned a provision in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act that allows the RIAA and other copyright holders to demand the names and addresses of suspected infringers from Internet service providers, using a subpoena process that requires a court clerk's, but no judge's, review.

But Coleman also questioned if P-to-P software vendors are doing enough to stop users from trading copyright files. "I do not believe that aggressively suing egregious offenders will be sufficient to deter the conduct of an entire generation of kids," Coleman said. "As a former prosecutor, I am troubled by a strategy that uses the law to threaten people into submission. Yet, as a former prosecutor, I am also troubled by a prevailing attitude that says because technology makes it free and easy, it's OK to do."

Lorraine Sullivan, a college student from New York, testified that she put up a Web site asking for advice after the RIAA filed a lawsuit against her earlier this month. About US$600 in donations from Internet users helped her pay off a US$2,500 settlement with the RIAA that she negotiated down from a higher amount, she said.

Sullivan accused the makers of MP3 players and others of misleading consumers about downloading music by encouraging users to share music files. She believed because Kazaa was still operating, trading files on its service was legal, she said. "I compared my actions to recording songs from the radio," she said. "I downloaded them for home personal use. I in no way financially benefited from, nor intended to make a profit from this music."

On the other side of the debate, Mike Negra, president of Mikes Video Inc. of State College, Pennsylvania, said he's lost millions of dollars in CD sales and had to sell one of his stores and eliminate 12 jobs since file downloading became popular in 2000. Music sales in his four-store company reached US$3 million a year in 1999 but have fallen 70 percent over the last three years.

"We just couldn't compete with free," Negra said. "P-to-P services that exist for the purpose of stealing music and movies have decimated small businesses around the country like mine. I can't tell you the amount of frustration we feel as we watch our business being stolen."

Rappers LL Cool J and Chuck D also debated file sharing, with Chuck D blaming the music industry itself for ripping off recording artists more than downloaders do. "I trust the consumers more than I trust the people who run these companies," he said.

But recording artists deserve to be paid for their work, countered LL Cool J. Musicians may get only a small fraction of a $0.99 song downloaded at a legal download site, he noted.

"Some of the artists may only get a nickel out of the 99 cents," he said. "Can we at least get that? Is it alright for us to make a living as Americans?"

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