RIAA Sues 532 'John Does'

After suffering a legal defeat in December, the Recording Industry Association of America is modifying its approach to pursuing online file swappers, RIAA President Cary Sherman says. But the group is pushing on with its program to stop illegal file trading with lawsuits, he says.

The RIAA, an industry trade group representing copyright owners, filed a new round of copyright infringement lawsuits Wednesday against 532 computer users who are allegedly illegally sharing copyright material using peer-to-peer networks, Sherman said in a telephone press conference to discuss the move.

In contrast to previous rounds of lawsuits, the RIAA filed "John Doe" lawsuits that identify alleged file swappers only by the IP address of the computer sharing the file. The RIAA will file a motion to require Internet service providers that own the addresses to provide the identity of the customers behind the addresses, Sherman says.

Naming Names

Previously, the RIAA used a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to subpoena ISPs directly, without court oversight, for the names and addresses associated with IP addresses before filing lawsuits. However, in December the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on behalf of Verizon Internet Services, overturning a lower court ruling that allowed the practice.

Verizon argued that the subpoenas threatened customer privacy because they could be issued by a court clerk without oversight by a judge and did not require subsequent legal action by the copyright holder after receiving the subpoenaed information.

The RIAA bundled its case against the 532 swappers into four lawsuits filed in New York and the District of Columbia. Each suit names customers of a different ISP, but defendants could live anywhere in the United States, Sherman says.

He declined to name the ISPs involved in the suits and took pains to say that illegal file swappers, not ISPs, are the target of the suits.

Egregious Offenders

The suits name only "egregious" file uploaders, which describes individuals whose computers host more than 800 files for download by other P-to-P users, he says. No particular P-to-P networks are targets in the lawsuits, he says.

"[The] lawsuits involve activity on a range of platforms, and we'll proceed against all of them," Sherman says.

The RIAA has not decided whether to continue pursuing its case against Verizon. However, the organization will not abandon similar cases pending in other circuits, Sherman says.

"We obviously disagree with [the] Court's decision in the D.C. circuit. It will be interesting to see if other courts think [U.S. Court of Appeals] Judge Bates was correct," he says.

Settling Down

So far, the RIAA has filed 382 lawsuits. Settlements were reached in 233 of those suits, with agreements in principle reached in another 100, Sherman says.

The average settlement is $3000. However, the RIAA may begin asking for larger settlements, as awareness of the legal issues surrounding file swapping grows, and if the RIAA's legal costs grow as a result of decisions like those from the D.C. circuit, Sherman says.

Owners of IP addresses named in the suits may be contacted by the RIAA once their ISP divulges their information to the organization, but before the lawsuit is amended to name them. Previously, before filing lawsuits the RIAA sent letters to those whose information they obtained using the DMCA subpoenas. The December appeals court ruling precludes that, Sherman says.

Show of Support

The announcement of the new lawsuits was preceded by testimonials from those with a stake in the illegal file trading issue who are sympathetic to the RIAA's position.

Mike Negra, owner of Mike's Video of State College, Pennsylvania, says that conversations with his customers lead him to believe that file sharing is on the retreat, as consumers realize the legal issues involved and parents disallow it on home computers. The message about illegal file sharing and copyright is being lost on older teenagers and young adults, who believe they should be able to acquire music and movies for free, he says.

Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, gave a tribute to fellow songwriters, who he says are being pushed out of work because of illegal file sharing, which he refers to as "online shoplifting." Borrowing a slogan from the National Rifle Association, Carnes defended the RIAA's controversial program to go after file swappers, saying that consumers' attitudes are the problem, not the Internet or P-to-P technology.

"Computers don't steal songs, people do," Carnes says.

The RIAA lawsuits have been effective in educating the public about the legal issues involved with file swapping and reducing illegal online file sharing in the United States, according to Mitch Bainwol, RIAA chairman.

According to RIAA polling data, the percentage of people who are aware of the legal issues surrounding file swapping changed from 32 percent to 64 percent in the last year, he said.

Both changes in public awareness of the legal issues surrounding file swapping and the growth of legitimate online music services like Apple Computer's ITunes and Roxio's Napster service are evidence that the RIAA's program is working, he said.

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