Hard on the heels of a partial victory for music and movie studios before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has continued to pressure consumers who it says illegally swap music, filing a new batch of more than 700 copyright infringement lawsuits.
The lawsuits come just three days after the Supreme Court handed copyright holders a victory by ruling in MGM vs. Grokster that peer-to-peer, or P2P, networks can be sued if they intend to have their technology used for illegal file-sharing.
However, the new batch of 785 suits do not rely on that ruling, instead are part of a lengthy and controversial campaign by the RIAA and more recently its movie counterpart, the Motion Picture Association of America, to sue individuals they believe are receiving or sharing copyrighted material without paying for it.
Ongoing Effort to Educate
The decision to file more lawsuits might be a recognition by the entertainment industry that it faces a high burden of proof against the P2P firms themselves. The Supreme Court ruling said that studios can only prevail in suits against those firms if it can be proved that they induced users to steal music or movies with their technology.
Separately, law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Europe announced they had made a major a number of arrests and seized computer equipment in an unrelated move on illegal file sharing and copyright violations.
In a statement, the RIAA said its suits were part of an ongoing effort to “educate fans about the right and wrong way to enjoy digital music.” The suits were filed in numerous jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., California, New York and Pennsylvania, and all are against so-called “John Does,” or unnamed defendants.
Those sued were said to be users of several P2P networks, including KaZaa, LimeWire and Grokster.
“On Monday, the Supreme Court provided a real shot in the arm to legitimate online music services and unanimously injected moral clarity into this debate,” RIAA Chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol said. “If there was any doubt left, there should now be none — individuals who download music without permission are breaking the law. Our efforts to defend the rights of record labels, musicians, songwriters and others in the music community from theft will certainly continue and likely be strengthened in the weeks and months ahead.”
Clear as Mud
Not all observers see the Supreme Court’s ruling in such clear terms, however. The P2P industry, in fact, declared partial victory for itself by noting that the court did not overturn or erode the landmark 1984 Sony Betamax ruling, which held that technology with legitimate uses was legal even if users ended up finding illicit uses for it.
The RIAA positioned its suits as just one part of a larger campaign being waged by Music United to educate the public, especially parents of teens — by far the heaviest users of P2P to swap songs.
The push will be backed with an advertising campaign urging the purchasing of music, with the tagline of “Feed a Musician, Download Legally” displayed on posters at subway stops and similar spots in 11 U.S. cities.
Depending upon an observer’s point of view, the campaign represents either a revived RIAA, one that received a welcome shot in the arm from the Supreme Court ruling, or one that is more desperate than ever to stem file-sharing in the face of the networks it takes place on and the users who do it becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Analysts say the industry is unlikely to abandon its strategy of lawsuits any time soon, primarily because they have been effective at helping to decrease illegal swapping. And they might in fact make more sense now than ever since there are now a range of legitimate alternatives that users can turn to for legal downloads.
In the past, the RIAA has typically settled copyright infringement suits for about US$5,000, a strong deterrent, especially for certain Web users, according to research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
“There is evidence that people who have never downloaded are deterred from starting,” Pew research specialist Mary Madden told the E-Commerce Times. Sixty percent of such individuals have said the lawsuits would keep them from ever attempting questionable downloading of music and a third of all past downloaders have stopped the practice because of the suit.
A. Blair Hughes, an attorney with McDonnell Boehnen, Hublert & Berghoff in Chicago, said the difficulty of proving the “intent to induce” standard set out by the court in the Grokster ruling might put users in the legal crosshairs for some time to come.
“The next hurdle the industry faces in view of the Grokster decision may be insurmountable,” Hughes said. The only recourse left to the big movie studios and recording companies will be to sue individuals who are using the file-sharing software illegally — an immense and costly undertaking.”