RIAA Files First Round Of Lawsuits Against Subpoena Targets

By | September 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Making good on its promise to sue online pirates, the recording industry filed a round of lawsuits against computer users in federal courthouses Monday.

More than 260 civil lawsuits were levied against people targeted by the cutthroat campaign, which the Recording Industry Association of America hopes will stamp out the rampant piracy believed to be causing a slump in record sales.

The users’ identities were given to the RIAA by their Internet service providers, who were compelled to do so by the more than 1,500 subpoenas that have been filed since July. The first of what may amount to thousands of lawsuits hit people who were each offering roughly 1,000 songs for download via peer-to-peer services including Kazaa, iMesh, Grokster, Gnutella and Blubster.

According to the law, the penalty for infringing upon a copyright can vary from $7,500 to $150,000 per offense, with the court being left to decide on an appropriate amount.

“We simply cannot allow online piracy to continue to destroy the livelihoods, not only of songwriters and recording artists, but also of tens of thousands of less celebrated people in the music industry,” RIAA President Cary Sherman said at a press conference Monday.

The RIAA is first going after those who upload files, rather than those who only download, in an effort to strangle the supply of copyrighted files available. Sherman cited a study that found 90 percent of the files available come from 10 percent of the users.

At the same time that the RIAA is levying its legal assault, it’s also offering amnesty for lawbreakers who’ve learned the error of their ways. Under the Clean Slate Program, users who delete all illegally obtained songs, promise not to download more, get an affidavit notarized, and have not already been under investigation by an RIAA subpoena can avoid being targeted by a lawsuit. But should someone default on their promises, the penalties will be more severe. Those interested in applying can do so at www.musicunited.org.

Many of those sued Monday, Sherman noted, had been sent instant messages by the RIAA, warning them of the illegality and consequences of copyright infringement. The messaging campaign, which has served up approximately 4 million “blings” since April, was part of the RIAA’s effort to spread awareness of the file-sharing problem and its consequences, along with broadcast PSAs and ads in newspapers.

Because the only information the RIAA could obtain from the subpoenas was the name and address of the person subscribed to the Internet service, some of the lawsuits may be misguided. But even if an 81-year-old grandmother gets slapped with a suit for allegedly downloading the “P.I.M.P.” remix, Sherman said the message is still clear.

“If a 14-year-old brought home a CD that they’ve shoplifted from Tower Records, the parent is unlikely to say, ‘Oh, how cute that he loves music!’ There’s no reason why they should be accepting illegal downloading any more than they would accept shoplifting. You would expect them to take some action.

“We expect to hear people say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was my kids,’ ” he continued. “Well, if they would prefer that the lawsuit be amended to include the name of the kid, we can certainly do that. But somebody has to assume responsibility for illegal activity.”

Some in the RIAA’s crosshairs yet to receive lawsuits have already settled with the organization, which represents all of the major record labels. Sherman said four to six people targeted by subpoenas have paid a sum in the range of $3,000. Once the legal process of filing a complaint begins, however, the price to make amends without going to court will surely rise.

“We’re open to settlements,” Sherman said. “In fact, we are attaching a cover note [to the lawsuits] that explains why we brought this action and who they can get in touch with if they are interested in working out a settlement.”

The RIAA has employed numerous law firms to file the complaints in whatever jurisdiction the offender resides, and legal teams will have to be secured should cases go to court. That will cost a lot of money, but “a mere fraction,” Sherman said, “of what we’re already losing [because of piracy].”

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