RIAA to file swappers: Let's chat

The recording industry is turning file-swappers' own tools against them with a new campaign that will send warnings to people who are offering copyrighted materials online.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
The recording industry is turning file-swappers' own tools against them with a new campaign to send warnings to people who are offering copyrighted materials online.

Tapping into the chat functions built into software programs such as Kazaa and Grokster, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on Tuesday started sending automatic messages to people who are providing copyrighted songs online, warning them that they're breaking the law.

About 200,000 people who use Kazaa and Grokster received the warning notice Tuesday and millions more will get notices in coming weeks, said Cary Sherman, the RIAA's president.

The campaign is geared to be educational, rather than a component of the industry's long-running antipiracy enforcement activities, the organizations said. However, the warnings will note that the file-swappers are putting themselves at legal risk by offering music online.

"We're going to be sending messages to the very people who are offering music, in real time, as they do it," Sherman said. "The hope is that, this way, we'll be reaching the people who need to know that they are not anonymous, that there are risks of legal consequences if they continue, and also that there are risks to privacy and security."

Whether viewed as an educational campaign or simply as a means of scaring some file-swappers, the new tactics come at a critical time for the industry. A Los Angeles federal court last week ruled for the first time that file-swapping tools such as Grokster and Morpheus were legal, handing copyright holders a serious setback in their efforts to pull the plug on such services.

The court, however, did indicate that individual file-swappers were likely breaking copyright law.

The new campaign, which will be run by an unnamed outside company, will take advantage of automated technology that scans peer-to-peer networks for files that appear to be copyrighted, logs the appropriate user name and Internet address, and then often sends notices to the person?s Internet service provider.

These types of services have become increasingly common in the last two years and often result in tens of thousands of infringement notices being sent every day. Mark Ishikawa, CEO of network scanning company BayTSP, said some movie studios have sent out notices to as many as 50,000 individuals offering the same film in one day.

Instant message karma
The new RIAA campaign will search for a list of several hundred popular songs and automatically send an instant message to any person who appears to be offering one of them, Sherman said. The group expects to send about 1 million of the messages per week.

"It appears that you are offering copyrighted music to others from your computer," the message will read in part. "Distributing or downloading copyrighted music on the Internet without permission from the copyright owner is ILLEGAL?When you offer music on these systems, you are not anonymous and you can easily be identified."

The campaign, dubbed "Music United," follows earlier industry education efforts that have enlisted high-profile artists for TV commercials and print advertisements portraying file swapping as theft, and as harmful to musicians. Contacting file swappers directly, through their own medium, may have more effect, Sherman said.

"It's different when you get a message that pops up on your screen that says, 'We know who you are, and we know what you're doing,'" Sherman said.

Although the computers sending the messages will likely keep log files indicating who has been contacted, the RIAA does not intend to link that information to enforcement efforts, Sherman said. The trade association has actively sought information from ISPs about the identity of individual file swappers, and is in the midst of a legal battle with Verizon Communications over one of those requests.

The RIAA was joined by representatives from other music-related trade associations and individual musicians who praised the new campaign.

"An artist doesn't wake up in morning and say, 'I'm going to record a song and everyone can copy it for free,'" said Thomas Lee, president of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). "I don't think we have a clear understanding from those who are doing this that it is illegal, and it is our responsibility to make sure that everyone who does this knows."

Sharman Networks, the company that distributes the popular Kazaa software, declined to say whether it believed the RIAA was acting in violation of any laws or user agreements, but said that the RIAA was attacking some of record companies' "most loyal customers."

"Sharman Networks has no objections to legitimate efforts to stop copyright infringement by users of P2P software," a statement released by the company read. "We strenuously object to efforts outside the law, in violation of user agreements, or in violation of the privacy rights of millions of P2P users worldwide to indiscriminately spam, mislead or confuse."

Reuters contributed to this report.