RIAA files 80 new file-swapping suits

Warning letters prompt many people to settle with the Recording Industry Association of America before being sued.

The Recording Industry Association of America on Thursday said it filed 80 new lawsuits against alleged file swappers, a move that comes after a wave of letters it sent earlier this month that warned targets of their legal risk.

The action marks a second round of suits against computer users who, record label investigators say, have made hundreds or even thousands of copyrighted songs available for download through peer-to-peer services such as Kazaa. The first round, filed in early September, targeted 261 individuals accused of putting "egregious" amounts of music online.

That first wave of suits helped dramatically raise awareness of the legal risks of file swapping, but also drew considerable criticism from lawmakers and consumer groups who said the RIAA risked violating individuals' rights or had sued the wrong people. In response, the group agreed to notify the potential targets of its lawsuits before filing.

It subsequently sent warning letters to 204 people early in October, saying they had been identified as likely targets of a new round of suits. On Thursday, the group said that 124 of those people decided to try to resolve the issue without going to court.

"We are pleased that our efforts to extend illegal file sharers an additional chance to come clean and work out settlements are proving successful," RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a statement. "The fact that the overwhelming majority of those who received the notification letter contacted us and were eager to resolve the claims is another clear signal that the music community's education and enforcement campaign is getting the message out."

There is some evidence that the controversial RIAA lawsuits against ordinary computer users are making a dent in the file-swapping world. According to Web analysis firm Nielsen/NetRatings, weekly usage of the Kazaa software in the United States plummeted from a high of 7 million people in early June to just 3.2 million people in late October.

"Use of the application has been on a rapid decline and has not recovered since the RIAA announced its lawsuits and started going after individuals," said Max Heiniman, a Nielsen/NetRatings spokesman.

Evidence of considerable consumer interest does remain. According to Download.com, a software aggregation site operated by News.com publisher CNET Networks, nearly 2.1 million people around the world downloaded the Kazaa software last week alone. That's significantly lower than the 2.5 million Kazaa downloads per week posted in early May, but represents strong ongoing momentum despite the lawsuits.

The RIAA said that a total of 156 people have agreed in principle to settle the lawsuits, a figure that may include some people who received the warning letters in the latest round. The group did not provide an average settlement amount, but the first such agreement, with 12-year-old New York public housing resident Brianna Lahara, totaled just $2,000. Other settlements have ranged near $3,000, according to sources familiar with the agreements.

Several groups, including the P2P United file-swapping software trade association, offered to pay Lahara's settlement costs.

The RIAA also said it had received 1,000 applications for amnesty from lawsuits under its "Clean Slate" program. Under that offer, people who believe they may be at risk of a lawsuit must fill out a form promising not to download or upload copyrighted music without permission and swear they have deleted any illegally obtained songs from their computers.

Critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have lambasted the program as holding potential dangers to participants' privacy and legal rights.

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