Washington, June 26 (Reuters) : A recording-industry trade group said yesterday it plans to sue hundreds of individuals who illegally distribute copyrighted songs over the Internet, expanding its anti-piracy fight into millions of homes.
The Recording Industry Association of America said it hopes to curb online song-swapping by tracking down the heaviest users of popular “peer to peer” services like Kazaa and suing them for damages that could range up to $150,000 per violation.
The announcement from the RIAA, whose members include AOL Time Warner Inc and Sony Corp, marks a sharp escalation in the industry’s battle against Internet piracy, which so far has concentrated on shutting down the services themselves.
Peer-to-peer users now copy more than 2.6 billion songs, movies and other files from each others’ computers each month, according to industry estimates. Executives believe such file trading has led to a 14 per cent slide in revenues since pioneering service Napster was introduced in 1999.
The RIAA has shut down Napster and several other peer-to-peer networks, and has leaned on universities, businesses and other institutions to make sure their computers block such activity. It sued four college students who operated file-trading networks on campus, reaching settlements between $12,000 and $17,500 each.
But the industry has until now shied away from directly suing users, opting instead to send them online warnings and clutter up the networks with dummy files.
RIAA President Cary Sherman said the time was right to go after individual users because a recent U.S. court ruling makes it easier to track down copyright violators through their Internet providers. A U.S. appeals court in Washington said earlier this month that copyright investigators do not need a subpoena to force Internet providers to reveal the name of customers who may be distributing copyrighted files.
While peer-to-peer users may believe that they remain anonymous online,“you are engaging in an activity that is every bit as public as setting up a stall at a local flea market,” Sherman said in a conference call.
Other music executives said legitimate services like Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes are beginning to catch on and provide a viable alternative.
Starting on Thursday, investigators will track down users who make their digital-music collections available for copying, he said. Those who download songs but do not allow others to copy them will not initially be targeted.
The trade group will probably file several hundred lawsuits in six to eight weeks, Sherman said.
Music fans who wish to avoid legal action should change the settings on their peer-to-peer software to block access to their hard drives or un-install the software completely, he said.
Reaction to the announcement was mixed.
The president of the Grokster peer-to-peer network said that while he does not support copyright infringement, the move could further estrange avid music fans.
”The RIAA, in their infinite wisdom, has decided to not only alienate their own customers but attempt to drive them into bankruptcy through litigation,” said Grokster President Wayne Rosso, who won a courtroom victory in April when a judge ruled that his network should not be shut down because it could not control what users chose to trade.
One copyright expert who has clashed with the RIAA in the past said she preferred that the industry go after big violators rather than relying on copy-protection technologies that could limit law-abiding citizens' rights.
”On a visceral level it doesn't sound like it's the smartest thing to do, but obviously they've done the cost-benefit analysis and they've decided they have to do it,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit advocacy group.