The embattled music industry on June 25 disclosed aggressive plans for an unprecedented escalation in its fight against internet piracy, threatening to sue hundreds of individual computer users who illegally share music files online. The annoucement gives schools and colleges yet another reason to warn students (and others) not to share copyright-protected materials over their networks.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), citing substantial sales declines, said it would begin on June 26 to search internet file-sharing networks to identify users who offer “substantial” collections of MP3 music files for downloading. It expects to file at least several hundred lawsuits seeking financial damages within eight to 10 weeks.

Executives for the RIAA, the Washington-based lobbying group that represents major labels, would not say how many songs on a user’s computer would qualify for a lawsuit. The new campaign comes just weeks after U.S. appeals court rulings requiring internet service providers to identify subscribers suspected of illegally sharing music and movie files.

The RIAA’s president, Carey Sherman, said tens of millions of web surfers who use popular file-sharing software after June 26 will expose themselves to “the real risk of having to face the music.”

“It’s stealing. It’s both wrong and illegal,” Sherman said. Alluding to the court decisions, Sherman said internet users who believe they can hide behind an alias online are mistaken. “You are not anonymous,” Sherman said. “We’re going to begin taking names.”

In April, the RIAA sued four college students who allegedly offered more than 1 million recordings online, demanding damages of $150,000 per song. The students agreed to pay damages of between $12,000 and $17,500 each and not illegally distribute copyrighted music. The new campaign apparently expands on this earlier effort.

Critics accused the RIAA of resorting to heavy-handed tactics likely to alienate millions of internet file-sharers.

“This latest effort really indicates the recording industry has lost touch with reality completely,” said Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Does anyone think more lawsuits are going to be the answer? Today they have declared war on the American consumer.”

Sherman disputed that charge. He said consumers are gradually turning to legitimate web sites, such as Apple Computer’s new iTunes Music Store (see “New online music store could tone down digital piracy,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4432), to buy music legally. As a result, he predicted they will not object to the industry’s latest efforts against pirates.

“You have to look at exactly who are your customers,” he said. “You could say the same thing about shoplifters; are you worried about alienating them? All sorts of industries and retailers have come to the conclusion that they need to be able to protect their rights. We have come to the same conclusion.”

Mike Godwin of Public Knowledge, a consumer group that has challenged broad crackdowns on internet file-sharing networks, said the June 25 announcement was appropriate because it targeted users illegally sharing copyrighted files.

“I’m sure it’s going to freak them out,” Godwin said. “The free ride is over.” He added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some people engaged in file-trading decide to resist and try to find ways to thwart the litigation strategy.”

The RIAA said its lawyers will file lawsuits initially against people with the largest collections of music files they can find online. U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person’s computer, but Sherman said the RIAA will be open to settlement proposals from defendants.

“We have no hard and fast rule on how many files you have to be distributing … to come within our radar screen,” Sherman said. “We will go after the worst offenders first.”

The RIAA said it expected to file “at least several hundred lawsuits” within eight to 10 weeks but will continue to file lawsuits afterward on a regular basis.

The group’s announcement is just the latest salvo in the effort to protect copyrights in the digital age. Earlier in June, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sparked a flurry of criticism when he suggested exploring technology that would remotely destroy computers used for illegal file-sharing.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, himself a published song writer, surprised participants in a Senate hearing on copyright issues with his remarks. He said damaging someone’s computer “may be the only way you can teach somebody about copyrights” and suggested the technology could twice warn users of their illegal activity, “then destroy their computer.”

Some legal experts suggested Hatch’s provocative remarks were more likely intended to compel technology and music executives to work faster toward ways to protect copyrights online than to signal forthcoming legislation.

“It’s just the frustration of those who are looking at enforcing laws that are proving very hard to enforce,” said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor and former Justice Department cybercrimes prosecutor.

Links:

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.org

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

Senate Judiciary Committee
http://judiciary.senate.gov