• United States
by Ann Harrison

RIAA issues lawsuits, offers bogus amnesty for file traders

Sep 16, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

* RIAA slaps lawsuits on 261 alleged illegal file traders

After filing at least 1,500 subpoenas demanding the identities of file traders, the Recording Industry Association of America carried through with its legal threats and slapped lawsuits on 261 of these people on Sept. 7. The RIAA charged them with “egregious” copyright infringement, which it claims could be worth millions of dollars.

The first person to settle one of these suits was not one of the “major offenders” whom the music industry initially claimed to be targeting, but a 12-year-old New York girl, Brianna LaHara. Her family coughed up $2,000 to get the RIAA lawyers off their back.

Under the law, confirmed copyright violators can be held liable for up to $150,000 per copyrighted music file.  The RIAA claims that most people sued were offering 1,000 songs on a P2P network. Yale University professor Timothy Davis said he was sued after downloading 500 songs.

The RIAA says that there will be thousands more such lawsuits over the next few months with the stated aim of stopping P2P users from offering copyrighted music. As I have stated in this column many times before, these lawsuits will not stop tens of millions of people around the world from trading music films and software online. According to, more than 2.8 million copies of Kazaa software were downloaded in the first week of September. Streamcast Networks says interest in its Morpheus software has risen over the past several months.

These lawsuits are further complicated by the fact that in many families, one Internet account is used by a number of people and the account holder many never have downloaded a single file. Richardson, Texas grandfather Durwood Pickle said he was sued after his teenage grandchildren downloaded music onto his computer. Those running wireless networks may also find themselves sued for the actions of anonymous people piggybacking on their open Internet connection.

The U.S. Congress will soon be holding hearings on the subpoena provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which has provided legal cover for the RIAA’s subpoenas. Ninety-five organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and major ISPs, have sent letters to members of Congress saying the DMCA invades the privacy of Internet users without due process of law. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who says he “doesn’t want to make criminals out of 60 million kids,” is supporting congressional hearings into how the RIAA has identified and tracked the people it is suing.

Far from halting widespread file trading, the RIAA’s legal actions will likely spark a backlash among the very people whom the music industry players need to cultivate as customers for their online music stores. File traders will simply find more anonymous ways to swap music or collect tracks from artists not affiliated with the RIAA. The RIAA is encouraging this backlash by offering a phony online amnesty campaign which claims to offer concerned file traders protection against potential lawsuits if they turn themselves in for offering copyrighted material.

This so-called  “Clean Slate” program requires file traders to destroy any copies of copyrighted works they have downloaded from P2P networks and sign a notarized affidavit pledging never to trade copyrighted works online again. Since it is difficult to confirm whether you are on the RIAA’s list for current legal action, it makes no sense to give it a signed declaration in which the music industry could use your own words against you in a lawsuit. The RIAA has said that if those who sign the pledge are named in future legal action by the music industry, they could be liable for higher damages based on “willful infringement.” This alone is a bad deal considering the imprecise targeting of defendants.

On behalf of California residents, Eric Parke, sued the RIAA Sept. 9, charging that the “Clean Slate” program is an “unlawful, misleading and fraudulent” business practice. Parke is asking the court to enjoin the RIAA from falsely advertising “Clean Slate.” According to the complaint, the program is “designed to induce members of the general public…to incriminate themselves and provide the RIAA and others with actionable admissions of wrongdoing under penalty of perjury while (receiving)…no legally binding release of claims…in return.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also pointed out that the protection offered by “Clean Slate” is an illusion since RIAA member record labels, songwriters and other copyright holders could subpoena this information from the industry association to use in their own lawsuits. This signed admission of guilt could also make you a target for criminal prosecution by federal authorities under the No Electronic Theft Act.