Following the lead of their American counterparts, the leading music industry groups in the UK and Europe have launched a barrage of private lawsuits against dozens of individuals they say illegally swapped copyrighted music.
The British Phonographic Industry filed 28 lawsuits in Great Britain and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) said it had started more than 400 other lawsuits in Europe, including 50 suits in France, 100 in Austria, 174 in Denmark and 100 in Germany.
The actions mark the first time the controversial tactic used with some success by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been attempted on such a large scale overseas. The RIAA has sued more than 3,000 alleged music pirates in the U.S.
The BPI said its suits came after a public warning to all UK music swappers in March and a summertime blitz of some 350,000 instant messages to known file sharers, a tactic borrowed directly from the RIAA.
“We have been warning for months that unauthorized file-sharing is illegal,” BPI Chairman Peter Jamieson said in a statement. “These are not people casually downloading the odd track. They are uploading music on a massive scale, stealing the livelihood of thousands of artists and the people who invest in them.”
Jamison said the organization “resisted legal action as long as we could. We have done everything we can to raise awareness of this problem” and to encourage users to turn to legitimate, industry-backed downloading options.
The RIAA has been sharply criticized for using legal tactics against file-sharers. Those suits, combined with the rise of legal download sites such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store and others, seem to have had a chilling effect on illegal file-swapping.
The suits have resulted in settlements and a mixed bag of publicity for the recording industry, with some observers questioning whether targeting 12-year-olds, as one suit did, is an effective or desirable means of combating piracy.
Jupiter Research analyst Mark Mulligan said the latest action was “inevitable” and puts all file sharers in the same boat.
Mulligan said that even though the music industry essentially made its own bed by missing chances to legitimize downloading earlier, it still has to defend its intellectual property however it sees fit.
“Digital youth in Europe and America are growing up with no understanding of music as a commodity,” he said. “The perception that music is free and essentially disposable is one that spells long-term danger for the music industry.”
However, Mulligan said it’s not lost on the industry’s critics that it has chosen to go after end-users rather than the file-sharing networks, which suggests “the issue of the exact legality of file sharing is, at the very least, still not a closed matter.”
As for effectiveness, Mulligan noted that about a third of U.S. file sharers say they’ve curtailed their online activity since the RIAA starting its lawsuit campaign, and that the legal thrust is one part of an overall campaign meant to direct online consumers to legitimate download options.
Forrester Research analyst Paul Jackson said the industry saw a more direct correlation in the UK and mainland Europe between downloading and plummeting CD sales.
In France, Germany and the UK in particular, downloading was growing rapidly at the same time music sales were slumping. European copyright laws vary, with some countries, such as Italy, where police have raided suspected file-sharers’ homes, having much tougher laws than in the U.S. Still, file-swapping has quickly become ingrained and accepted in the European culture, Jackson added.
“In Europe even more so than America, there was a growing sentiment that it was just unnecessary to pay for digital music,” Jackson said. “The industry saw the potential for the long-term damage that attitude could cause. They were looking at an entire generation that saw music as something that was abundant and free online.”
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