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Recording Industry Warns File Sharers

RIAA tells 204 people they will be sued unless they settle allegations of copyright infringement.

October 18, 2003|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Bowing to criticism that record companies are too quick to sue, industry lawyers this week gave 204 people a heads-up that they soon may find themselves in court.

Notification letters were sent in two batches, one Monday and another Friday, to users of file-sharing networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus.

The letters went to people with more than 1,000 copyrighted songs on their hard drives, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the record labels' trade group.

The letters say recipients have 10 days to settle allegations of copyright infringement "and avoid being sued." Otherwise, the letters threaten, lawsuits will be filed by the end of the month.

The letters represent the latest salvo in the recording industry's assault on online piracy, which it blames for the continuing slide in CD sales. In September, the industry filed 261 copyright infringement lawsuits.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), in a hearing in Washington last month, chastised the record labels for filing those lawsuits without first notifying the defendants. Some people, he noted, received calls from reporters before they were formally served with the suits.

"We take the concerns expressed by policymakers and others very seriously," RIAA President Cary Sherman said. "In light of the comments we have heard, we want to go the extra mile and offer illegal file sharers an additional chance to work this out short of legal action."

A spokesman for Coleman praised the move. But "in the end, the senator does not see litigation as the solution," press secretary Tom Steward said.

Civil liberties groups said the letters, while a step in the right direction, are designed to frighten people rather than avert lawsuits against innocent people.

"To the extent that the letters help ferret out people who'd be wrongly accused, that's a good thing," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group in San Francisco. "But these letters are a little like asking how you'd like the chairs on the Titanic to be arranged. It's a somewhat better arrangement now, but the ship is still headed in the wrong direction."

Of the initial 261 lawsuits, 52 have been settled, including a suit against a 12-year-old schoolgirl in New York. Settlement amounts have ranged from $2,000 to as much as $10,000, Cohn said. Another, against a 66-year-old grandmother in Massachusetts, was dropped in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

Since the recording industry ramped up enforcement, use of networks such as Kazaa, Morpheus or Grokster has cooled considerably. A study by Nielsen/NetRatings found a 41% drop in the number of users on Kazaa from June 29 to Sept. 21.

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