Pirates walk plank

Subpoenas targeting only super swappers

WASHINGTON — In its quest to put the brakes on online music piracy, the Recording Industry Assn. of America has argued it is targeting only “egregious” Internet music file-swappers.

Determined to break consumers of the online music piracy habit, the RIAA has in the last 2½ months unleashed more than 1,000 subpoenas on computer users who allegedly were downloading songs illegally from online peer-to-peer file-sharing sites such as Kazaa, Morpheus and Grokster.

In late July Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) started investigating whether the trade org’s legal tactics were too heavy-handed and had caught unwary consumers in the subpoena dragnet. Coleman demanded the trade org answer for its actions: Hand over the subpoenas and respond to several questions about how it determined which individuals to sue and how it protected their privacy rights in the process. Last week the RIAA sent Coleman an 11-page response, which the senator released to the public Monday.

‘Substantial’ activity

In the letter, RIAA prexy Cary Sherman explained that the RIAA currently is focusing on “egregious infringers, those who are engaging in substantial amounts of illegal activity.”

“In so prioritizing its efforts, RIAA is acting no differently than anyone in this country whose property rights have been violated and who is faced with a decision whether to press a legal claim: We are making a judgment as to whether pursuing a possible lawsuit is appropriate given the circumstances,” he wrote.

Coleman thanked the RIAA for its prompt response and underscored the org’s right to protect its business interests. However, he said he remains concerned about “the potential for abuse of the subpoena process” and wants to ensure the punishment for violators fits the crime.

“While the RIAA has not yet filed any copyright-infringement lawsuits, the RIAA has promised to approach these suits in a fair and equitable manner,” he said. “I look forward to continue to work with the recording industry to ensure that the process is indeed fair and equitable.”

Sherman also chronicled the various efforts the RIAA has made in recent months to educate consumers about the illegal nature of downloading songs from these file-swapping sites before they requested the subpoenas.

For months now, Sherman wrote, recording industry leaders, along with a coalition of groups such as the National Music Publishers’ Assn., the Country Music Assn., the Gospel Music Assn., the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and the Songwriters Guild of America, have tried to drive home the message that music piracy not only robs well-known celebs but threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of behind-the-scenes staffers in the industry, from engineers to technicians to warehouse workers and record store clerks.

Future in doubt

Sherman also pointed out that the cash drain deprives the industry of the resources to find and develop new talent and thus “undermines the future of music itself.”

“The message of the campaign has been very clear: Copying or distributing music over the Internet without permission is stealing, plain and simple,” Sherman declared.

The RIAA has conveyed that message in a series of print and broadcast ads, including spots in USA Today, BET and MTV. Also, before the org started filing subpoenas, it sent more than 4 million instant messages to individuals who were using these file-swapping sites to download music. It further warned individuals that it was planning to sue anyone downloading music illegally before it took action, giving them the chance to kick the habit on their own.

In response to Coleman’s concerns about consumers’ privacy, Sherman said the association was only going after “infringers distributing very large numbers of copyrighted recordings” and said the org’s lawyers had uncovered consumers who had downloaded thousands of recordings.

The RIAA has yet to file any formal lawsuits from the latest round of subpoenas, but when it does, Sherman promised to negotiate settlement terms on a “case-by-case basis, taking into account the individual’s particular circumstances.”

This past spring, he noted, the record companies brought suit against two college students who were running peer-to-peer networks on their colleges’ computer systems and downloading tens of thousands of songs. In those cases, the industry settled those cases for $12,500 and $17,000.

“While every case is unique, we intend to be similarly fair and proportionate with respect to individual infringers and to consider each individual’s circumstances,” Sherman added.