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Musical miscues

April 15, 2006

HOW DO YOU MAKE SOMEONE who has been accused of breaking the law 272 times look sympathetic? You send in the Recording Industry Assn. of America's settlement negotiators.

Cassandra Hunt, a sophomore physics major at MIT, is the latest cause celebre among online music aficionados. Like more than 18,000 others around the country, many of them college students, Hunt has been sued by the RIAA for pirating music online -- in particular, by offering 272 songs for other people to download through an ultra-high-speed file-sharing network called i2hub.

Hunt doesn't admit liability, but she has acknowledged being a music pirate in a column for a campus newspaper. She also has described her experience with the RIAA's settlement center, a contractor that tells defendants how much they will have to pay to avoid going to trial. And those descriptions are what have rescued Hunt's image, transforming her from victimizer to victim.

The center, she has written, offered to settle the case for $3,750, or nearly $14 per song. When she said that she wouldn't be able to pay that much in the requested six months, the center's representative allegedly said, "The RIAA has been known to suggest that students drop out of college or go to community college in order to be able to afford settlements."

In fairness, that's one contractor talking, not the major record companies' trade association. But Hunt's account triggered a flood of support online and fueled the notion that illegal file sharing is a cause, not a crime -- a battle between lowly music fans and greedy record companies.

The music industry has a legitimate concern about the millions of people who trade songs online without a dime of compensation for labels, artists or songwriters. But as the lawsuits mount and the targeted infractions become more trivial, the lack of proportionality becomes more troubling. Federal law stacks the deck against anyone accused of pirating music online. Damages start at $750 per song and could go as high as $150,000 depending on intent. With stakes like that, no one -- let alone a college student -- can afford to fight in court and lose.

What's needed here is something like what the French parliament is considering: treating illegal music downloading and file sharing like traffic violations, with much lower penalties and a streamlined process for adjudicating claims. By fitting the punishment to the crime, Congress would eliminate the overkill that obscures the moral rights and wrongs.

At the same time, colleges and industry executives should move more aggressively to offer legitimate, paid-for campus music services that can compete with underground file-sharing networks. The point should be to feed and profit from people's love of music, not punish it. But with only about 100 universities offering any kind of online music service, the industry's approach to the problem on campus has been too much stick and not enough carrot.

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