Music piracy suit targets 261 downloaders

The lawsuits, filed in federal courts around the country, targeted people who make songs on their computers available to others online — making a distinction between people who download and those who distribute. The suits did not name Internet file-sharing services like Kazaa, Gnutella and Grokster, which enable the downloading of millions of songs.

By late Monday, no suits had been filed in Sacramento, but about 20 were filed in federal courts in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

Executives at the Recording Industry Association of America said they had exhausted other remedies and that swinging a legal hammer is the only way to stem music downloading, which they calculate has contributed to a 14 percent decline in revenue and a 26 percent plunge in CD shipments between 1999 and 2002.

“Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation,” association President Cary Sherman said in a prepared statement. “But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action.”

The RIAA has steadily stepped up the legal pressure, including suing four students last spring for making thousands of songs available over their college network.

Several record companies — Capitol Records, Elektra Entertainment, Virgin Records America, Arista Records, Sony Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings and BMG — are plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed Monday.

After a federal judge ruled that the makers of file-sharing software were not responsible for the actions of their users, the industry began subpoenaing Internet service providers for the identities of some of the most active distributors of copyrighted songs.

Linking millions of people, these peer-to-peer programs allow people to search the shared contents of other computers, then download digital music files to play on a PC, burn onto a compact disc or transfer to a player.

The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for those who have engaged in illegal file-sharing. The industry will not sue file-sharers if they delete illegally obtained music from their computers and dispose of any CDs onto which they’ve burned those songs. File-sharers also must submit a notarized statement swearing they will no longer engage in illegal downloading.

Gartner Group analyst Mike McGuire said the amnesty appears to be a way for parents to head off potential litigation against their children. Forms were to be made available at

But Glenn Peterson, an intellectual property attorney with McDonough Holland & Allen in Sacramento, said such an amnesty doesn’t shield individuals from prosecution by law-enforcement agencies or music publishers.

“If people sign it, they might think that’s the end of (any liability), and that’s not the case,” said Peterson, whose firm represents an individual whose records were subpoened by the RIAA.

Under Monday’s suits, defendants could be liable for $750 to $150,000 for each copyrighted work that was illegally copied or distributed, the RIAA said.

The RIAA has targeted individuals who have an average of 1,000 or more songs available on their computers for others to download.

Such penalties might persuade many music swappers to scale back their downloading, experts say. A survey by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research said 69 percent of the most active downloaders would stop if faced with serious fines or jail time.

Among those sued Monday was a 12-year-old New York schoolgirl who gets a kick out of nursery songs and TV themes. Brianna LaHara, a curly-haired honor student, couldn’t believe she’s one of the “major offenders” the music moguls are after.

“Oh, my God, what’s going to happen now?” she asked after hearing of the suit. “My stomach is all in knots.”

Experts had predicted a large number of the suits likely would name youngsters.

At California State University, Sacramento, student Gabe Huffman of Carmichael said he’s sharply curtailed his downloading. “Ever since I’ve heard about the suits, I haven’t done it as much,” he said.

But Chris Elane of Redding said he sees no reason to stop. “I keep doing it because it’s free,” Elane said. “It’s illegal, to an extent, but everyone is doing it, so I might as well, too.”

Fear of lawsuits isn’t likely to send music lovers flocking back to record stores, and might even alienate them further, said Barry Sosnick, who follows the retail music industry for Adams Media Research Inc. in Carmel.

“The RIAA has gone negative on its customers. It’s going to be very hard to win those customers back,” Sosnick said. “Instead of suing people, the music industry should spend heavily marketing the product and convincing consumers that music is worth the money.”

On the other hand, Gartner analyst McGuire said the industry needs to make an example of the biggest violators. “I think spanking a couple of those folks is not a bad idea,” McGuire said.

Analysts said that if illegal downloads become too legally costly for most file-sharers, music lovers might switch to the legitimate online sites such as Rhapsody and Apple’s iTunes Music Store, where they can pay by the song.

Source: Sacramento Bee