Home Entertainment

File-sharing lawsuits go abroad

An international recording industry association files its first round of lawsuits to target illegal file sharing outside the United States.

As of today, illegally downloading country in Copenhagen or break beats in Berlin could lead to trouble.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, a worldwide recording industry association, announced on Tuesday its initial round of lawsuits against individuals whom it asserts illegally share files of copyrighted music. The 247 suits against alleged that file sharers in Denmark, Germany, Italy and Canada mirror similar action by the Recording Industry Association of America--the results of which have gotten mixed reviews from analysts and researchers.

The IFPI said it plans to bring additional lawsuits in other countries over the coming months, after filing criminal complaints in Italy and Germany, and civil litigation in Canada and Denmark.

The largest action was in Denmark, where the IFPI sent letters to 120 people, asking them either to stop sharing files and pay compensation--or face legal charges. The various filings focus on people who use an array of file-sharing systems, including Kazaa, DirectConnect, WinMX, eMule and iMesh.

The industry group said it decided to file the suits, because it sees the RIAA's efforts in the United States as successful. The RIAA continues to pile on lawsuits against U.S. citizens, filing new litigation against another 532 anonymous individuals last week. The British Phonographic Industry also announced recently that it plans to begin sending warnings to prolific file sharers.

"We hope to have the same result as in the U.S. suits," IFPI Chairman Jay Berman said in a phone interview from the group's London offices. "People are getting the message, the cloak of anonymity has been removed and the number of files being shared has been reduced."

However, the RIAA lawsuits have not proceeded without drawing some criticism for both their methods and their effect on music sales. In one case, the RIAA was forced to settle its case against a 12-year-old New York girl living in public housing. Research has also shown that despite the legal efforts, file sharing remains popular. In January, research firm The NPD Group reported that peer-to-peer usage was up 14 percent in November 2003, after six months of declines, as media coverage of the lawsuits waned.

In perhaps the most damaging evidence against the lawsuits' effectiveness, researchers at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina reported this week that file swapping has had little to no effect on sales of legal recordings. Both the RIAA and IFPI have identified slowing music sales as the primary catalyst in their pursuit of illegal file sharing.

IFPI's Berman called that study "deceiving," because it was conducted over the last several months of the calendar year, typically the busiest period for music sales. He pointed to IFPI's own research, which finds that file sharing has contributed to a severe reduction in global record sales, which fell from $38 billion in 1998 to just more than $30 billion in 2003, according to the group's numbers.

In terms of potentially targeting children or other less tech-savvy individuals with lawsuits, Berman was unapologetic. The group will not prescreen individuals before filing suit, he said, and file sharers would be treated with the same broad stroke on the Web as shoplifters would be in a store.

"We try to identify people who are most likely to be offering incredible amounts of files, and we might end up going after the old or the young as a result, but that's a chance we plan to take," he said. "That 12-year-old girl had thousands of files. If something like this turns up elsewhere, we'll face the consequences."

Overall, the IFPI asserts that the number of copyrighted music tracks stored on Internet file-sharing networks has dropped dramatically as a result of legal threats. The group estimates that there are currently some 800 million such files, significantly down from the estimated high of 1 billion files in April 2003. The industry association acknowledges, however, that the current figure represents an increase from the 500 million files in existence in 2002 and attributes much of that growth to authorized online music services.

Berman said his group recognizes that legal music services represent a tremendous opportunity for the music industry to diversify how it delivers new material to consumers but believes that these systems must follow the pay-per-song model of Apple Computer's iTunes network in order to benefit musicians.

"I can't sit here and count all the new opportunities for delivering music to consumers, whether it may be over the Internet or into people's wireless telephones or anything else," Berman said. "At the end of the day, we want the people making that music to get paid for it, and we're going to continue to pursue this fight to that end."