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Labels Will See Music File Sharers in Court

June 26, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Unable to stamp out Internet music piracy through education or threats, the record labels on Wednesday said they will start suing thousands of people who share songs online.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America announced that it plans to spend the next month identifying targets among the estimated 57 million people using file-sharing networks in the United States, focusing on those offering a "significant" amount of songs for others to copy.

Then, in August, RIAA will file its first lawsuits, President Cary Sherman said.

The new campaign broadens the labels' anti-piracy dragnet far beyond the four college students who settled claims last month that they were running illegal file-sharing networks on campus. Now the industry plans to pursue not only those running such services but also the users who supply them with music.

"I don't think anybody likes to be in lawsuits, but we've tried in thousands of ways to deal with the problem," said Zach Horowitz, president of Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group. "I just think that there's not a lot of other alternatives for us now."

Many in the music industry had hoped to avoid hauling potential customers into court. But the decision to sue individuals reflects the seething frustration among executives, songwriters, performers and retailers over the relentlessness of online piracy, on which they blame a 25% drop in sales of CDs since 1999.

Despite lawsuits against Napster Inc. and other file-sharing networks, huge numbers of people continue to use such systems to make billions of illegal copies of songs from the labels' recordings without fear or remorse. Now the labels want to instill a measure of both.

"The message up to now has been, 'No, no, no, no, no -- be good kids, don't do it,' and everybody laughs at us, saying, 'What are you going to do, sue me? Are you going to risk the bad press?' " one label executive said. "I think we're at a moment where maybe we need really bad press."

Although RIAA represents the record industry -- and its action Wednesday was supported by acts as diverse as the Dixie Chicks and Shakira -- a number of record-label and online-music executives quietly questioned whether a legal offensive addresses the industry's fundamental problems.

The labels, they said, need to stop focusing on lawsuits and start concentrating on the new market that is emerging online. "There is no positive message coming out, no coordinated, positive message coming out in support of the online services," one critic said.

File-sharing systems, also known as peer-to-peer networks, enable users to copy songs, movies and other digital goods from one another's computers free. Introduced to the mass market by Napster in 1999, file sharing has grown so popular that a single system -- Kazaa -- makes about 800 million files available.

The labels successfully sued Napster into submission two years ago. On April 25, however, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson in Los Angeles ruled that two succeeding systems, Morpheus and Grokster, were legal even though their users routinely made illegal copies of music and movie files.

Wilson's ruling, which the labels and Hollywood studios are appealing, helped push more music industry executives to accept the need to sue individual users, Sherman said. Another federal judge's ruling in January made it easier for the labels to force Internet service providers to identify subscribers whose accounts were being used by file sharers who allegedly violated copyrights.

Legal experts say that it's hard to defend a file sharer who offers a large number of copyrighted songs for strangers to copy through the Internet. RIAA is also trying to make a compelling emotional case in favor of the lawsuits, citing songwriters who've seen their royalties evaporate, music retailers who've closed stores, artists who've been dropped from labels and musicians who've lost jobs at recording studios.

The risk is that music fans and lawmakers will view the lawsuits as heavy-handed, particularly if a number of the heretofore anonymous file sharers turn out to be children -- or if law-abiding users of file-sharing networks are targeted by mistake. Meanwhile, new software is popping up to let people share files without revealing their location, making it significantly harder to sue them.

Sherman said RIAA is confident that its enforcement efforts will fall only on copyright violators, although some lawsuits probably will be brought against parents who unwittingly aided their children's file sharing -- and even against those who unwittingly share music.

He also said that the association will "keep filing lawsuits on a regular basis until people get the message."

Some technology advocates, however, say RIAA is the one missing the message.

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