Like many of the thousands of other people who've been sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for allegedly downloading music illegally, 20-year-old Cassi Hunt is in no position to pay off thousands of dollars in fines.
But the advice a RIAA representative gave the sophomore physics major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology didn't really sound reasonable: Drop out and get a job or switch to a cheaper community college.
Hunt said she first learned she was being sued around Christmas ("that was a great time"), but her school graciously stalled on giving her the notice until January.
"But you can't delay the inevitable," said Hunt, who would not comment on whether or not she had illegally downloaded the copywritten material the RIAA is claiming. "I got a letter from a law firm in Colorado saying I was going to be named in a lawsuit and offering me an opportunity to settle." After calling the RIAA hotline and the settlement hotline and getting recorded messages for both, Hunt waited for someone to call her back.
When someone did call Hunt back a short time later, she told Hunt she was accused of stealing 272 songs but that she could settle the case for $3,750. Surely if she's going to such a high-end university, she had the money to pay off that much, right?
"Oh, God, no," she laughed. "I make maybe $5,000 a year, which puts me $4,000 in debt."
Hunt said in addition to taking out huge loans to cover her $42,000 in annual college costs, she works three jobs as an alumni-fundraising booster, grading papers and doing research assistance.
"I talked to [the RIAA rep] and said, 'Let's negotiate this amount,' and she said it was not negotiable," Hunt said. "So we got on the topic of what happens if people have unusual circumstances, like medical conditions, do they make allowances for that? Or for students who have major expenses? She said, 'No, the RIAA doesn't care about that, it doesn't matter.' When I asked her what I should do, she said that in the past the RIAA has encouraged students to either drop out of college or attend community college so they can get a job and pay off their debt. I was flabbergasted. I started laughing at her and said, 'You cannot be serious!' " Turns out she was.
The RIAA has filed lawsuits against more than 18,000 individuals since September 2003, with more than 4,300 settlements to date, according to a spokesperson, who would not comment on Hunt's claims.
Instead the RIAA spokesperson referred to a previously issued statement reading: "Our goal with all these anti-piracy efforts is to protect the ability of the music industry to invest in new bands and give legal online services a chance to flourish. As part of achieving that goal, we bring lawsuits against individuals who violate the law and steal from record companies, musicians, songwriters and everyone else involved in making music. It is not our position to tell individuals how to pay for the settlements that may follow. It is our role to enforce our rights under U.S. copyright law."
At this point Hunt said she cannot afford to go to court — where, if she loses, she will have to pay the RIAA's legal bills as well — and is trying to figure out how to raise the money to pay the fine. She said her parents are in no position to help out, so one way she's trying is by begging for it on her new Web site, ScrewPirates.com, where she is chronicling her battle with the RIAA. "I'll try several things at school to raise money," she said. "A Texas Hold 'Em tournament, bake sales, raffles."
If you're not in the neighborhood, Hunt suggests checking out the ScrewPirates official store, where she's selling mugs, teddy bears, boxer shorts, thongs, hoodies and baseball shirts.
For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.