RIAA Files 261 Lawsuits Against Alleged Music Pirates

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) launched its long anticipated legal assault on file swappers Monday by filing 261 civil lawsuits against individuals accused of illegally distributing copyrighted music through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. RIAA President Cary Sherman said the lawsuits were the first of “subsequent waves of litigation.”

According to Sherman, the lawsuits were filed only against “substantial” violators, whom he defined as those who distributed, on average, 1,000 or more copyrighted works. Individuals accused of distributing copyrighted files on P2P Networks Kazaa, Grokster, Imesh, Gnutella, and Blubster were targeted in this initial round. Under U.S. law, damages for copyright violations range from $750-$150,000 per copyrighted work infringed.

The RIAA also announced it is starting an amnesty program for those who voluntarily identify themselves and pledge to stop illegally sharing music on the Internet. Sherman said the RIAA will guarantee not to sue file sharers who have not yet been identified in any RIAA investigations and who provide a signed and notarized affidavit in which they promise to respect recording-company copyrights.

“For those who want to wipe the slate clean and to avoid a potential lawsuit, this is the way to go,” said Mitch Bainwol, RIAA chairman and CEO. “We want to send a strong message that the illegal distribution of copyrighted works has consequences, but if individuals are willing to step forward on their own, we want to go the extra step and extend them this option.”

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Wendy Seltzer, however, urged file swappers to ignore the amnesty offer.

“Stepping into the spotlight to admit your guilt is probably not a sensible course for most people sharing music files online, especially since the RIAA doesn’t control many potential sources of lawsuits.” Seltzer said in a statement. “Rather than demanding that 60 million people sharing music files turn themselves in with a so-called ‘amnesty’ program, the recording industry should take this opportunity to make file-sharing legal in exchange for a reasonable fee.”

The RIAA estimates there are more than 2.5 billion illegal downloads of copyrighted songs every month and blames the continuing slumping in CD sales on music piracy. In July, the RIAA promised to file “thousands of lawsuits” against alleged infringers, but not before sending more than four million instant messages directly to suspected infringers warning them to cease and desist.

Sherman said Monday “virtually” every one of the people named in the lawsuits had received an instant message warning.

“Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation,” said Sherman. “But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action. We simply cannot allow online piracy to continue destroying the livelihoods of artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers, and everyone in the music industry.”

Recent data shows the RIAA’s stepped up efforts have had an impact on file sharing. July statistics from Nielsen//NetRatings showed that traffic dropped on P2P networks more than 15 percent in the first week after the RIAA issued its lawsuit warning.

A recent study issued by market research firm The NPD Group said households acquiring music files online illegally reached a high of 14.5 million in April of 2003, but that the number dropped off to 12.7 million households in May, followed by another drop to 10.4 million households in June.

“We’ve been telling people for a long time that file sharing copyrighted music is illegal, that you are not anonymous when you do it, and that engaging in it can have real consequences,” said Sherman. “And the message is beginning to be heard. More and more P2P users are realizing that there are dozens of legal ways to get music online, and they are beginning to migrate to legitimate services. We hope to encourage even the worst offenders to change their behavior, and acquire the music they want through legal means.”

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