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Mistaken ID? Music Firms Drop Suit Against Grandmother

September 25, 2003|From Associated Press

In a possible case of mistaken identity, the recording industry withdrew a lawsuit against a 66-year-old sculptor who says she never downloaded song-sharing software, let alone used it.

Sarah Seabury Ward of Newbury, Mass., and her husband use their computer to e-mail children and grandchildren, said Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn, who has worked with the family. They use a Macintosh, which cannot even run the Kazaa file-sharing service they were accused of using illegally.

Nonetheless, Ward was one of 261 defendants sued by the recording industry this month for illegal Internet file sharing. Ward was accused of illegally sharing more than 2,000 songs, including rapper Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug."

An attorney for the Recording Industry Assn. of America withdrew the case, calling the move a "gesture of good faith" but writing in a letter to Ward's attorney that the group would continue to look into the matter. The letter said the RIAA reserved the right to refile its suit.

RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss said Wednesday that the group believes the computer address -- known as an Internet protocol address -- provided by Comcast Corp., Ward's Internet service provider, is correct and the organization still believes it has the right account.

Cohn said she expects more cases like this to emerge, given the difficulties of tying IP addresses to particular individuals. She said Internet service providers such as Comcast don't have enough IP addresses for each user, so they shuffle them around, and it is difficult to track which account used a particular address at a particular time.

"This is what happens when you sweep away all the due process protections and all the privacy protections," Cohn said. "Those are the kinds of things that would stop this before it gets to the stage where you sue some nice old lady who did nothing wrong."

Sarah Eder, a spokeswoman for Comcast, declined to comment specifically on Ward's case, but said the company has helped the recording industry match IP addresses with users' names, but only in cases where Comcast was legally bound to do so.

Weiss said this was the only case the RIAA had withdrawn, but Cohn said her group was investigating several others that may involve mistaken identity. Cohn said several other defendants who have contacted her group claim another member of their household was doing the file sharing.

The RIAA has proved willing to go after the offending family member, as in the case of Brianna LaHara, a 12-year-old honors student from New York who was sued. Her mother settled the case for $2,000 and an apology from Brianna.

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