No More Warnings: If You're File-Sharing Illegally, Expect A Lawsuit

RIAA plans to sue thousands of copyright infringers, beginning in mid-August.

Rather than kicking ass and taking names, the RIAA is reversing that order in the most drastic step in its ongoing war against illegal file-sharing.

Starting Thursday, the Recording Industry Association of America will gather personal information on those peer-to-peer users offering the largest amount of copyrighted songs. Once they have the names and addresses of the culprits, copyright-infringement lawsuits will be filed. In a press conference on Wednesday (June 25), RIAA president Cary Sherman said the initial wave of copyright-infringement lawsuits, which can carry penalties as high as $150,000 per infringement (or shared song), would amount to the thousands.

Those targeted can expect to receive civil suits as early as mid-August.

"The law is clear, and the message to those who are distributing substantial quantities of music online should be equally clear — this activity is illegal, you are not anonymous when you do it, and engaging in it can have real consequences," Sherman said.

Thanks to a precedent set earlier this month that required Internet service providers to identify copyright pirates to the RIAA (see "Recording Industry Orders Verizon Subscribers To Stop File-Sharing"), the recording industry will start the campaign by obtaining the names of KaZaA, Morpheus and other P2P network users who are sharing the most songs, because studies have shown that the majority of downloaded songs stem from a few users with large libraries. The RIAA hopes that if the supply is threatened, the demand will dwindle.

"The more files you upload, the bigger target you are," Sherman said. "And we intend to keep filing lawsuits until people get the message."

The deterrent effect of the lawsuits is also a factor in the RIAA's rationale. When it filed suit against the four college students who were running intranet P2Ps on their campus servers in April (see "Sued College Students Settle With RIAA"), not only were those sites disabled the next day, so were 18 similar ones.

Up until now, file-sharers have been informed of the illegality of their practice by television PSAs, print ads and instant messages (see "Instant Message From RIAA: Stop Stealing, We Know Who You Are"), but the time for warning shots is over. The industry is now taking aim at the offenders' pocketbooks.

"People can no longer count on getting a warning," Sherman said. "They may simply get a lawsuit if they persist in this behavior after tomorrow."

"It's downright theft," said Thomas F. Lee, president of the American Federation of Musicians. "It's stealing, it has a horrible impact on all the musicians, as well as the technicians. Our focus is to pull the covers off and expose [file-sharing] for what it is. We have attempted to educate people about this, but at this point in time, it seems we have to do what's necessary to protect our members' interest."

Even if someone has not downloaded a song in months, that their shared libraries are available for others to pick through is enough to warrant a lawsuit. And being underage is no excuse. Even if a minor uses KaZaA, the lawsuits will be brought against their parents, or whoever is billed by the ISP.

"We think the Internet can be a great resource for both musicians and music fans, so by all means we encourage fans to do it, but do it legally," said Sharon Corbitt, studio manager at Nashville's Ocean Way, referring to Apple's iTunes and various other legit services. "Because if they don't, they won't be causing problems for the musicians only but for themselves."

The press conference speakers said file-sharing caused a ripple effect of consequences. Not only are the record labels feeling an impact, but so are talent scouts and songwriters, who, unlike artists, can't bring in revenue from touring or merchandise sales. And that may add up to a dearth of creativity in the industry.

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.