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RIAA's Tumultuous Week: Lawsuits and Headlines

Even by the litigious standards of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), it was a tumultuous week. Already engaged in a three-year legal war against peer-to-peer (P2P) networks for serving as conduits for alleged music piracy, the principal trade group of the major music labels flooded courtrooms from coast to coast with 261 civil copyright infringement lawsuits against individual file swappers.

The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for those who voluntarily identify themselves and pledge to stop illegally sharing music on the Internet. In exchange for signing the pledge, the RIAA said it would not sue file sharers who have not yet been identified in any RIAA investigations.

And that was just on Monday.

By Tuesday, the RIAA was awash in national headlines, both supportive and derisive, for its individual lawsuits against file swappers. To bolster its anti-piracy campaign and to defend its use of the controversial subpoena provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to obtain the names cited in the individual lawsuits, RIAA President Cary Sherman dropped by a Senate committee hearing to explain his group's actions.

Sherman didn't miss the opportunity to bolster the RIAA's campaign against piracy on the P2P networks, laying the blame for the slump in CD sales directly at the feet of music pirates using the file-swapping networks. But the hearing primarily became a platform for Alan Morris, EVP of Sharman Networks, owner and operator of Kazaa, who claimed the music labels were mounting a "vile and reprehensible" smear campaign against P2P providers.

Morris told the Senate Judiciary Committee that allegations of "strong linkage" between file-swapping networks and the distribution of child pornography simply were not true. He said the "vast majority" of the child pornography problem stems from Web sites accessed by browser software and claimed the music labels were perpetuating the rumors as part of their efforts to discredit P2P networks.

Sure enough, Sherman worked in a reference to P2P networks and the distribution of child pornography in his testimony.

In a separate announcement, the RIAA touted its first settlement in the individual lawsuits with a New York woman agreeing to pay $2,000 for the copyrighted songs distributed over Kazaa by her 12-year-old daughter. The settlement was reached with Sylvia Torres, mother of Brianna Lahara, who had offered more than 1,000 copyrighted song tracks on the family's personal computer.

By the end of Tuesday, a Novato, Calif., man slapped an injunctive action against the RIAA's amnesty program, claiming it is a deceptive business practice. Eric Parke, a 37-year-old mortgage broker, said in a lawsuit filed in Marin County Superior Court in San Rafael that the amnesty offer is "hollow and deceptive" and provides "no real legally binding assurance" that those who sign the amnesty offer will not be sued at some later date by copyright owners.

The heat didn't fade on Wednesday when P2P United, a file-swapping trade group that includes Grokster and StreamCast Networks, said it has offered to pay Lahara's $2,000 settlement and described the RIAA actions as a "sorry episode." Online media retailer MusicRebellion.com also said it they would give $2,000 in free music to Lahara.

The Terre Haute, Ind.-based company quickly added that it has "no intention of ever donating to file swappers again, but hopes that online music fans, who might otherwise be unaware of a legal alternative, will now recognize the vast availability" of legal downloads available on the Web.

In turn, the RIAA released a survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates between Sept. 4-6 that the RIAA claims showed an "overwhelming majority of music consumers" support the industry's decision to gather evidence and take legal action "against individual computer users who are illegally sharing substantial amounts of copyrighted music online."

The survey question, asked of 803 consumers age 10 and over, was: "When you hear that the recording industry is gathering evidence and preparing lawsuits against individual computer users who are illegally sharing substantial amounts of copyrighted music online, would you say that you are supportive and understanding of the recording industry's decision to take these actions, or unsupportive and negative about what the recording industry's decision to take these actions?"

According to the RIAA, 52 percent said they were supportive and understanding of the industry's actions, while 21 percent said they were unsupportive and negative.

Things quieted at the end of the week, but more headlines are in store next week when Verizon on Tuesday goes into a Washington, D.C. federal appeals court in hopes of overturning a January lower court decision that has forced Internet service providers to turn over names of alleged copyright infringers to the RIAA.

In a case ultimately headed to the Supreme Court, Verizon is questioning the constitutionality of the subpoena power provision of the DMCA. The 1998 act allows copyright holders to issue subpoenas that have not been reviewed by a judge and requires no notice to, or opportunity to be heard by, the alleged infringer. Unlike a usual subpoena, which requires some underlying claim of a crime, under the DMCA a subpoena can be issued by a court clerk who only checks to make sure the subpoena form is properly filled out.

The RIAA has used the January court victory to issue more 1,500 subpoenas. Those subpoenas led to the 261 civil lawsuits being filed by the RIAA.