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Record Labels Mostly Winning Piracy Lawsuits

Many defendants prefer to settle. One judge fears that wealthy firms could trample the little guy.

August 21, 2004|From Associated Press

A man in California refinanced his home to pay an $11,000 settlement. A woman in Milwaukee and her ex-boyfriend are under orders to pay thousands to the recording industry. A year after it began, the industry's legal campaign against Internet music piracy is inching through the federal courts, producing some unexpected twists.

"I'm giving up and can't fight this," said Ross Plank, 36, of Playa del Rey. He had professed his innocence but surrendered after lawyers found on his computer traces of hundreds of songs that had been deleted one day after he was sued.

Plank, recently married, refinanced his home for the money.

"Apparently, they would be able to garnish my earnings for the rest of my life," Plank said. "For the amount I'm settling, this made sense. I didn't see any other way. They've got all the power in the world."

The campaign also has produced worries, even from one federal judge, that wealthy record companies could trample some of the 3,935 people across the country who have been sued since the first such cases were filed in September.

"I've never had a situation like this before, where there are powerful plaintiffs and powerful lawyers on one side and then a whole slew of ordinary folks on the other side," said U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner at a hearing in Boston. Dozens of such lawsuits have been filed in her court.

On the West Coast, another judge rejected an injunction sought by record companies against one Internet user, saying it would violate her rights.

So far, however, record companies are largely winning their cases, according to a review of hundreds of lawsuits. They did lose a major ruling this week in California when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said manufacturers of software that can be used to download music illegally aren't liable, leaving record labels to pursue lawsuits against Internet users.

At least 807 Internet users have already settled their cases by paying about $3,000 each in fines and promising to delete their illegal song collections, said the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the trade group for the largest labels.

Experts said the amounts of those settlements -- compared with $7,500 or more for losing in court -- discouraged people from mounting a defense that could resolve important questions about copyrights and the industry's methods for tracing illegal downloads.

In Milwaukee, Suheidy Roman, 25, said she couldn't afford a lawyer when her ex-boyfriend, Gary Kilps, told record companies that both of them had downloaded music on Roman's computer.

Although she denies the accusation, Roman ignored legal papers sent to her home. A U.S. judge this year granted a default judgment against her and Kilps, ordering each to pay more than $4,500.

Industry lawyers said they had won an estimated 60 such default judgments nationwide.

Yet, in a few courthouses, the music industry has stumbled even in victory. A judge in California rejected an injunction banning Lisa Dickerson of Santa Ana from illegally distributing music online. Although the judge agreed that Dickerson was guilty, he said there was no evidence she was still breaking the law and determined that such a ban on future behavior would violate her rights. She was ordered to pay $6,200 in penalties and court costs.

Still, the Playa del Rey man who recently agreed to pay $11,000, the largest settlement in any of the lawsuits, urged Internet users not to take solace in rare procedural victories.

"It scares me," Plank said. "For anyone fighting any of these lawsuits -- unless they have nothing to lose -- the only thing to do is settle. You have no power against these people."

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