RIAA back on track

Org files 532 lawsuits vs. music swappers

WASHINGTON — After suffering a bruising court battle last month, the music biz is back on the offensive in its crusade to stop online music swapping.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America unleashed 532 lawsuits against anonymous computer users Wednesday, the largest round of lawsuits the trade org has issued since launching its aggressive legal strategy last summer.

Suits also are the first the RIAA has issued since a D.C. appeals court barred the group from using a special type of copyright subpoena that forced Internet service providers to cough up the identities of customers accused of trading music illegally.

Ruling in favor of Verizon, in late December, the court determined that current law does not give copyright holders such extensive subpoena power. Record labels now will have to prove they have evidence that the person under question actually engaged in illegal music-sharing.

With the ruling in mind, lawyers for the music biz resorted to filing the latest suits against “John Doe” defendants identifiable only by their numeric Internet protocol addresses. RIAA execs hope the courts will force the ISPs to name names, but without the automatic subpoena power, ISPs have the right to object to such demands, making suing music swappers a much slower, costlier process.

RIAA prexy Cary Sherman acknowledged the cumbersome new legal process, but said the group plans to continue the legal strategy undeterred.

“Our campaign against illegal file-sharers is not missing a beat,” he said. “The message to illegal file-sharers should be as clear as ever.”

Sherman said the RIAA filed suits in Washington, D.C., and New York, although he would not indicate which ISPs were involved.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has opposed the RIAA’s legal strategy from the start, continued to criticize the industry for suing its fans.

EFF offered an alternative solution that would marry the file-swapping technology with the music labels’ desire to boost sagging sales.

“The recording industry should be giving America’s millions of file-sharers the same deal that radio stations have had for decades: Pay a fair fee, play whatever you want on whatever software works best for you,” said EFF legal director Cindy Cohn.

Mike Negra, owner of the Mike’s Video chain, endorsed the RIAA’s latest round of suits as a necessary way to encourage legal music sales — either in the stores like his or online.

Negra said he has evidence the legal campaigning is making an impact.

“Sales this holiday season finally improved. You get the feeling this may just have bottomed out,” he said. “From the traffic in my stores and talking to customers, I hear from parents that they’ve begun restricting their kids’ downloading.”

Negra also sees a growing threat from the illegal downloading of movies, particularly for stores located near college campuses.

“For a lot of these kids who already download music, movies are just another item on the menu,” he said.

Sherman argued that the additional hurdle involved in seeking the names of accused computer users would prevent the RIAA from contacting music traders and settling their disputes without formal legal action.

RIAA began negotiating with potential defendants before slapping them with lawsuits after Congress complained the legal dragnet had snared some unsuspecting and potentially innocent people.

Even so, after obtaining the names from the ISPs, Sherman said RIAA lawyers still plan to contact each person to negotiate a financial settlement before they formally name them in a suit.

The extra legal steps likely will force the RIAA to spend much more money on the legal campaign, and Sherman said that could result in higher settlements.

“The price of settlement, therefore, may rise,” he said. “In the end, though, we really do decide these on a case-by-case basis.”

Before this latest legal action, the trade group had filed a total of 383 lawsuits, although it sent out hundreds of letters warning that lawsuits would result if the accused did not contact the RIAA and settle the matter. The legal action has resulted in 233 official settlements, with about 100 more in the works. Sherman estimated the average settlement to be $3,000.

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