RIAA sends message to Web file swappers

Org warns: When you break the law, you risk legal penalties

Starting Tuesday, Internet file-swappers began getting some unexpected personal correspondence on their screens from the record industry, advising them to stop posting copyrighted music on the Web — or face the consequences.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America has started using the instant-message function embedded in two of the most popular peer-to-peer networks — Kazaa and Grokster — to send warnings to individual users that they could wind up in court.

“When you break the law, you risk legal penalties,” the warning reads. “There is a simple way to avoid that risk: DON’T STEAL MUSIC, either by offering it to others to copy or downloading it on a ‘file-sharing’ system like this. When you offer music on these systems, you are not anonymous and you can easily be identified.”

The warnings will pop up on the computer screens of users who are offering up copyrighted music for sharing from their hard drives while they are logged on to the service. The RIAA hopes to send out as many as a million such messages every week.

While RIAA president Cary Sherman declined to comment on whether the org is planning to sue individual users of file-sharing services in the near future, Tuesday’s move marked one of the most overt signs yet that the industry is moving in that direction.

“The message is getting through that there are real consequences,” Sherman said on a conference call.

The prospect of going after individuals in court loomed a lot larger after a series of court cases last week. In the first, telco Verizon was forced to reveal the names of a particularly heavy file-sharing user on its network to the RIAA.

And in the second, a federal judge ruled that peer-to-peer services Grokster and Morpheus weren’t liable for infringement on their networks, noting that users themselves bear the blame for posting copyrighted music and video files.

“We have been engaged in an education campaign for some time now to educate consumers that it is illegal,” Sherman said Tuesday of trading copyrighted music. “That was affirmed yet again in the Grokster case last week.”