RIAA Files Suit Against 531 Song-Swappers

In what a Recording Industry Association of America spokesperson described as “catching up to the pace we were at before,” the RIAA has filed five new suits to ensnare another 531 computer users who allegedly have traded pirate music online.

The copyright lawsuit tactic first emerged last year in a spate of subpoenas based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) but tapered off with a court ruling against the RIAA. But last month the RIAA filed its first wave of so-called “John Doe” lawsuits in which the defendant is identified at first only as an Internet address.

The RIAA said the association is at roughly the same point with the lawsuits as it was last year — using the same infringer-identification technology that captures Internet Protocol (IP) sessions of music swaps and is then tracked to the user via his or her Internet connection. According to the RIAA, the only thing that has changed is the court procedure, which now requires a judge’s approval before subpoenas are issued.

However, civil liberties groups and RIAA critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), complain the RIAA is not adhering to normal court procedures, nor is it protecting the identities of users alleged but not proven to have violated copyright law.

“The record industry failed to follow the basic rules required in all lawsuits when it lumped people into lawsuits filed in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Orlando, and Trenton, New Jersey,” said an EFF statement. “Also, the record industry has not ensured accused file-sharers a means for reviewing and responding to potentially incorrect accusations before ISPs reveal their identities.”

Still Issuing Subpoenas

The RIAA told TechNewsWorld that last month’s wave of four lawsuits involving 532 alleged file-traders has progressed. For three of the four suits, a judge has approved RIAA discovery motions, and the group now is beginning to issue subpoenas to ISPs.

The RIAA said the association is still waiting on a discovery decision in the fourth suit and that the latest round of five lawsuits involving 531 individuals likely will proceed in the same way. He added that while a court ruling that quashed the RIAA’s previous subpoena process correlated with a lull in the RIAA’s campaign, the recording industry is back “at roughly the same track we were last year.”

While the RIAA has continually touted the success of its legal campaign, Yankee Group senior analyst Mike Goodman told TechNewsWorld that the outcome of countersuits against the RIAA filed by peer-to-peer (P2P) networking companies might work against the recording industry.

On the continuing lawsuits, RIAA president Cary Sherman said in a statement that they are intended to help legal download services and hurt the existing P2P networks that enable illegal sharing.

“That’s why we are sending a clear message that downloading or ‘sharing’ music from a peer-to-peer network without authorization is illegal, it can have consequences and it undermines the creative future of music itself,” Cary said in a statement.

Cutting Legal Corners

In response to the latest lawsuits, the EFF contended the lawsuits are a shotgun approach to hit individual users.

“The cases include alleged file-sharers located throughout the United States who acted independently, using various file-sharing software and allegedly downloading a wide variety of different music,” the group said.

EFF legal director Cindy Cohn said in a statement that the RIAA is cutting corners in its crusade and is denying ordinary people the legal protections available in all other types of legal cases.

“The courts should require the record industry to sue people individually in the appropriate local courts and provide notice so those sued have a chance to refute accusations of file-sharing before the record industry compels an ISP to reveal their identities,” Cohn said.

Mistakes and Embarrassment

In response to the EFF statement, the RIAA said there will always be complaints about the recording industry’s actions, regardless of what is done. As for any heightened concerns that the industry could misidentify accused file-traders with a somewhat different legal process, the spokesperson said there are none.

“Like before, we have confidence in our investigative procedures and court filings,” the spokesperson said.

However, the Yankee Group’s Goodman said it is almost a guarantee that in filing the 1,063 suits this year, the RIAA is likely to get a few of the computer users wrong. The industry was chided last year when some of its targets turned out to be innocent. In one case, an elderly woman was accused of downloading rap and other music using Kazaa, a Windows-based application that is not compatible with the Macintosh computer she had at home.

Goodman said that not only is a case of mistaken identity likely, but also that the RIAA might find itself embarrassed if it were to end up suing the child of a senator or other lawmaker, a record-industry kid or even a recording artist.

“There are an awful lot of people, and I can’t say they are [file-sharing], but a fair number who would be an embarrassment who will get hit sooner or later in one of these nets,” Goodman said.

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