A 12-year-old girl in New York who was among the first to be sued by the record industry for sharing music over the internet is off the hook after her mother agreed Sept. 9 to pay $2,000 to settle the lawsuit, apologizing and admitting that her daughter’s actions violated U.S. copyright laws.
The hurried settlement involving Brianna LaHara, an honors student, was the first announced one day after the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed 261 such lawsuits against music fans who illegally share songs online.
“We understand now that file-sharing the music was illegal,” Brianna’s mother, Sylvia Torres, said in a statement distributed by the recording industry. “You can be sure Brianna won’t be doing it anymore.”
Brianna added: “I am sorry for what I have done. I love music and don’t want to hurt the artists I love.”
The RIAA launched the next stage of its aggressive anti-piracy campaign Sept. 8, filing 261 federal lawsuits across the country. The action was aimed at what the RIAA described as “major offenders” who illegally distribute on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each, but lawyers warned they ultimately might file thousands of similar cases.
Besides Brianna, the targets of the first lawsuits included a Yale University professor and an elderly man in Texas who rarely uses his computer. Each faces potentially devastating civil penalties or settlements that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
The case against Brianna was a potential minefield for the music industry from a public relations standpoint. The family lives in a city housing project on New York’s Upper West Side, and they said they mistakenly believed they were entitled to download music over the internet because they had paid $29.99 for software that gives them access to online file-sharing services.
The RIAA said this week it already had negotiated $3,000 settlements with fewer than 10 internet users who learned they might be sued after the RIAA sent copyright subpoenas to their internet providers. But lawyers negotiated those settlements before the latest round of lawsuits, and the RIAA had said any further settlements would cost defendants more than $3,000.
Even in the hours before the settlement was announced, Brianna was emerging as an example of what critics said was overzealous enforcement by the powerful music industry.
The top lawyer for Verizon Communications Inc., William Barr, charged earlier on Sept. 9 during a Senate hearing that music lawyers had resorted to a “campaign against 12-year-old girls” rather than trying to help consumers turn to legal sources for songs online. Verizon’s internet subsidiary is engaged in a protracted legal fight against the RIAA over copyright subpoenas sent to Verizon customers.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also alluded to Brianna’s case.
“Are you headed to junior high schools to round up the usual suspects?” Durbin asked RIAA President Cary Sherman during a Senate Judiciary hearing.
Durbin said he appreciated the piracy threat to the recording industry, but added, “I think you have a tough public relations campaign to go after the offenders without appearing heavy-handed in the process.”
Sherman responded that most people don’t shoplift because they fear they’ll be arrested.
“We’re trying to let people know they may get caught, therefore they should not engage in this behavior,” Sherman said. “Yes, there are going to be some kids caught in this, but you’d be surprised at how many adults are engaged in this activity.”
It was unclear how Brianna’s name–rather than her mother’s–came to be listed as a defendant in this case. The recording industry said it named as the defendant in each lawsuit the person who paid for the household internet account, but children typically aren’t listed as account holders.
The RIAA said it did not investigate each individual’s background before filing its lawsuits.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., led the call for congressional hearings into how the music industry has identified and tracked the internet users it is suing.
“They have a legitimate interest that needs to be protected, but are they protecting it in a way that’s too broad and overreaching?” Coleman said. “I don’t want to make criminals out of 60 million kids, even though kids and grandkids are doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”
Another target of the RIAA’s lawsuits, Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, said his teenage grandchildren downloaded music onto his computer during their visits to his home. He said his grown son had explained the situation in an earlier eMail to the recording industry association.
“I didn’t do it, and I don’t feel like I’m responsible,” Pickle said in an interview with the Associated Press (AP). “It’s been stopped now, I guarantee you that.”
Pickle, who was unaware he was being sued until contacted by AP, said he rarely uses the computer in his home.
“I’m not a computer-type person,” Pickle said. “They come in and get on the computer. How do I get out of this?”
Yale University professor Timothy Davis said he will stop sharing music files immediately. He downloaded about 500 songs from others on the internet before his internet provider notified him about the music industry’s interest in his activities.
“I’ve been pretending it was going to go away,” said Davis, who teaches photography.
An estimated 60 million Americans participate in file-sharing networks, using software that makes it simple for computer users to locate and retrieve for free virtually any song by any artist within moments. Internet users broadly acknowledge music-trading is illegal, but the practice has flourished in recent years since copyright statutes are among the most popularly flouted laws online.
The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for people who admit they illegally share music, promising not to sue them in exchange for their admission and pledge to delete the songs off their computers. The offer does not apply to people who already are targets of legal action.
Sherman called the amnesty offer “our version of an olive branch.”
Some defense lawyers have objected to the amnesty provisions, warning that song publishers and other organizations not represented by the RIAA won’t be constrained by the group’s promise not to sue.
U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person’s computer.
Several schools and universities are responding to the recording industry’s campaign to control the rampant copying of files over peer-to-peer networks. Among other things, campuses are distributing brochures, running ads in student newspapers, and devoting school web pages to information on copyright infringement.
Some are even using software to choke the amount of data that can flow in or out of a computer when students use Kazaa and other file-sharing programs.
“We’re feeling a great deal of pressure as a result of what the entertainment industry is doing, and we’re stepping up a lot of activities to address it,” said Jim Davis, associate vice chancellor for information technology at the University of California, Los Angeles.