RIAA Sues File Swappers

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In a long-awaited legal action, the Recording Industry Association of America yesterday said it is suing 261 people who it alleges have illegally swapped or downloaded music files online.


The trade group also unveiled an amnesty program under which it guaranteed not to sue those who aren't already the target of an RIAA member company lawsuit, and who delete all copies in any format of illegally downloaded music and provide a signed, notarized affidavit promising not to swap music files online again.


Under copyright law, each violation carries up to $150,000 in penalties. The RIAA claims it is suing "major" offenders, or those who downloaded more than 1,000 copyrighted music files using peer-to-peer networks. As a result, the defendants could face whopping fines. However, few of the cases are expected to make it to court.


"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," RIAA president Cary Sherman said in a 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."


The RIAA blames file swapping for an ongoing slump in CD sales.


However, civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation maintains that the RIAA is wrong-headedly making criminals out of some of its potentially best customers.


"More lawsuits [are] not the answer. Does anyone think that suing 60 million American file-sharers is going to motivate them to buy more CDs?" said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based foundation. "File-sharing networks represent the greatest library of music in history, and America's fans would be happy to pay for access to it, if only the recording industry would let them."


The EFF also warned against the RIAA's amnesty program.


"Stepping into the spotlight to admit your guilt is probably not a sensible course for most people sharing music files online, especially since the RIAA doesn't control many potential sources of lawsuits," EFF staff attorney Wendy Seltzer said in a statement.


Meanwhile, this is just the first wave of what could be thousands of civil suits, the RIAA said. This first round of suits targets users of Kazaa, Grokster, Imesh, Gnutella and Blubster, the association said.


The trade group announced June 25 that it would gather evidence for these suits, and since has been subpoenaing records from ISPs and colleges to identify illegal music file swappers.


The RIAA also said that since May it has sent 4 million instant messages to "infringers," including all those named in this first round of suits.


About 29 percent of Internet users have downloaded music files to their computers, and about 4 percent do so on an average day, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.


Also, 21 percent of Internet users say they share files, or allow others to download files from their computers, the Washington nonprofit reported.


"Americans' attitude towards copyrighted material online has remained dismissive, even amidst a torrent of media coverage and legal cases aimed at educating the public about the threat file sharing poses to the intellectual property industries," the report said.


Sixty-seven percent of Internet users who download music, and 65 percent of those who share files, said they don't care whether the files they download are copyrighted.


Not surprisingly, young adults dominate music downloading and Internet file swapping, Pew said. Fifty-two percent of Internet users ages 18-29 have downloaded music, and 10 percent do so on an average day.


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