NEW YORK — Online music swappers beware: Starting this week, the next file you download could be a subpoena.
After months of dancing around the issue of prosecuting individual cyberpirates, the Recording Industry Assn. of America said Wednesday that it will file thousands of lawsuits against Web surfers who upload copyrighted songs onto file-sharing networks like Kazaa.
Move opens up an aggressive line of attack in the industry’s war on digital piracy — one that record execs, artists and trade groups hope will provide the silver bullet they’ve been seeking for the past four years to hobble online copyright infringement.
The RIAA today will begin its evidence-gathering process, trolling peer-to-peer networks for the identity of particularly aggressive users (the org stresses that such information is publicly available on those systems). The first lawsuits could come as early as August.
“Starting tomorrow, we’re going to be taking names of users who are making available a substantial number of files to other users on peer-to-peer (networks),” RIAA president Cary Sherman said in a conference call Wednesday. “Any computer user who continues to use peer-to-peer networks to steal music will have to face the music.”
Suits will affect only users who offer tracks on file-sharing networks — not those who download without sharing. But, as Sherman noted, many peer-to-peer users are unaware that music files on their hard drive are automatically made available to other users when they use the Kazaa software.
The industry didn’t specify how many files a user would have to offer to warrant legal action, saying suits would be filed on a case-by-case basis. RIAA lawyers expect to file several hundred suits initially.
“The more files you upload, the bigger a target you are making of yourself,” Sherman said.
The path was cleared for suits against individuals last month, when a federal court ruled that Internet access giant Verizon had to turn over to the record industry the names and contact information of two heavy file-sharing users on its network.
Verizon and several civil liberties groups had argued that giving up such information on demand would constitute a gross violation of privacy rights. The RIAA has countered that Net access providers are more concerned about the practical difficulties of identifying thousands of peer-to-peer users.
Sherman acknowledged even several thousand suits would be a drop in the bucket relative to the tens of millions of people who have downloaded P2P software. But he argued the deterrent effect from even a few very public court cases would be huge.
“When we filed those four suits against college students who were running file-sharing services on their schools’ internal networks, not only did those four come down but another dozen and a half like them came down almost immediately,” Sherman said.
Music execs also discounted assertions that suits against individual users will inflame popular distrust of the music industry as a whole. Sherman noted the cable and satellite TV industries have had success with similar moves, adding that few would criticize a retail store for pursuing shoplifters in court.
Dave Johnson, general counsel for Warner Music Group, said the industry has made repeated efforts to tell consumers and institutions about the legal dangers of trading copyrighted music, mounting a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, instant-messaging P2P users and writing letters to college presidents and the CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies to make them aware of the problem.
“We have been trying to educate people to what’s really a simple fact,” Johnson said. “For a very long time there has been a regime of laws which are designed to reward successful creativity — that’s good economically for the people associated with the business, and it’s good for consumers because of the music that has been created.”
The industry’s stepped-up efforts come as sales declines for recorded music are becoming acute. Sherman said sales have slumped by more than 25% since 1999, the year file-swapping pioneer Napster rose to prominence.
The suits also were prompted in part by early signs that the market for legal online music may finally be taking root — most notably in the form of Apple’s iTunes music store, which this week announced it has sold 5 million digital tracks.
“The success of iTunes suggests … that there can be a successful market for legitimate sales of downloaded music,” Johnson said. “But there are lots of transition steps — it’s not like at the push of a button you can migrate to a brave new world.”