RIAA takes aim at individual swappers

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) will soon begin gathering evidence for use in what could be "thousands of lawsuits" against individual music file swappers, the organization said Wednesday.

In a statement, the RIAA cited its efforts to educate the public about the illegality of file swapping and the easy availability of extensive legal downloading services as precursors to its new effort to target individual file swappers who, it contends, are engaged in piracy.

"We cannot stand by while piracy takes a devastating toll on artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers and everyone in the music industry," the RIAA said in its statement.

The industry association will use software that can scan peer-to-peer networks for copyrighted material and download the suspect files while also capturing the date and time of the download as evidence. Additional information obtained from the systems hosting the files will lead the RIAA to the Internet service provider (ISP) of the file swapper.

Those ISPs will then be served with subpoenas under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), requiring them to divulge the name and address of the individual hosting the files, the RIAA said.

Individuals who are found swapping copyrighted material could face legal action from the RIAA in the form of civil lawsuits and even criminal prosecution, according to a statement attributed to RIAA President Cary Sherman.

The decision to pursue legal action against individuals is just the latest move by the RIAA to turn up the heat on file swappers on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and Grokster.

In April, the group won a court case forcing Verizon Internet Services Inc. to turn over the names of customers who downloaded hundreds of songs over a P-to-P network.

Given the group's focus on online music swapping, the threat of mass lawsuits shouldn't be surprising, according to one legal expert.

"It's a time-honored American tradition to threaten to sue someone," said Jonathan Zittrain, of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School

The recent court ruling against Verizon will embolden the RIAA to seek customer information from other ISPs, he said.

Still, Zittrain thinks it is unlikely there will be thousands of lawsuits by the group.

"We're probably talking about thousands of threats (of lawsuits)," Zittrain said.

However, given the "con" of getting sued and the intangible "pro" of sharing files on line, many Internet users may eventually decide to stay off of P-to-P networks, he said.

The recording industry sees the current fight, coupled with its tentative efforts at online distribution such as Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store, as the keys to its survival, Zittrain said.

"They are against the wall. I think they really believe that if they don't play a strong hand, with defensive moves like (the lawsuits) and offensive moves like iTunes, they're gone, " he said.

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