RIAA settles 4 suits over file-swapping

Fines range from $12,000 up to $17,500 per student

The Recording Industry Assn. of America has settled all four of its legal complaints against college students that it accused of setting up and running free file-swapping services with thousands of copyrighted songs on their schools’ own internal networks.

Fines, which range from $12,000 up to $17,500 per student, mark the close of the music industry’s most aggressive legal move to curb online piracy to date — a move that many observers say could be a prelude to filing infringement suits against individual users of peer-to-peer networks.

As part of the settlement, the students also signed sworn statements promising that they would never again “infringe in any manner, including without limitation by using the Internet to download or distribute, any and all sound recordings protected by federal or state law.”

The suits were filed last month against students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Princeton University and Michigan Tech in a bid to take the copyright fight directly to students, who have been among the most prolific users of peer-to-peer technologies.

Matt Oppenheim, RIAA senior veep for business and legal affairs, believes the message is getting through. “We know of at least 18 ‘local area Napster networks’ that have come down since we filed the lawsuits,” he said.

Could seek stiffer penalties in future

The org said the relatively small amounts for the settlements reflected the “limited means” of the student-defendants and the fact that they are the first of their kind. But the RIAA added that it would consider stiffer penalties for similar offenses in the future if circumstances warrant.

The RIAA has had a busy time in court over the past month. Org got a judge to force telco Verizon to hand over personal info on a heavy peer-to-peer user, opening the way for suits against individuals. Aggressive support from the Bush administration was said to have greased the wheels in the case.

Just a day later, a second judge ruled that file swappers Grokster and Morpheus weren’t liable for infringing files traded using their software, shifting the onus of digital piracy still further toward individual swappers.

The RIAA hasn’t yet said it will definitely go after peer-to-peer users in court, but earlier this week it began sending them instant messages on their computer screens warning of the potential legal consequences of sharing copyrighted wares.

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