RIAA steps up file-trading suits

The Recording Industry Association of America files 531 new copyright suits against alleged music swappers.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
The Recording Industry Association of America picked up the pace of its legal attack on Net music swappers Tuesday, filing copyright infringement suits against another 531 individuals.

As with the last round of suits, filed in early January, the latest wave comes without names attached. Under a legal ruling handed down last year, the RIAA must file suits in court before it can approach Internet service providers (ISPs) for information that links alleged file-swapping evidence to the subscriber names on a given ISP account.

That hasn't stopped the group's legal machine from churning out evidence of copyright infringement, however. With the total number of people sued now approaching 1,500, the trade association says its legal action continues to be necessary to protect the growth of services like Apple Computer's iTunes and other authorized music outlets.

"Legal online music services...shouldn't have to compete with businesses based on illegal downloading," RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a statement. "That's why we are sending a clear message that downloading or 'sharing' music from a peer-to-peer network without authorization is illegal, it can have consequences, and it undermines the creative future of music itself."

The record label group has accelerated the pace of its legal action considerably, filing more than 1,000 lawsuits since the beginning of 2004, compared with less than half that amount in the last four months of 2003. The increased pace comes after evidence arose early in January that the initial dissuasive effects of the RIAA's legal threats were wearing off. At that time, a report from Internet monitor The NPD Group said music trading through networks such as Kazaa had begun rising again by last November, after steep drops earlier in the year.

But new data NPD released Tuesday showed that by December 2003, music swapping was back on the decline. According to the group's surveys, 21 percent fewer songs were traded through file-swapping networks by U.S. residents in December, compared with November 2003. About 2 percent fewer U.S. households engaged in music file trading at all, the group said.

NPD does not yet have data covering the months of January or February.

The pace of the latest rounds of lawsuits has also been determined by their different form. In this latest batch, as with the last, the RIAA has bundled together scores of anonymous file swappers whose apparent Internet Protocol addresses mark them as subscribers of the same ISP, and filed against them in a single lawsuit.

Last time, that meant four lawsuits against 532 "John Doe" individuals, who would be named later. This time, there are five separate suits against a total of 531 anonymous Net subscribers, filed in federal courts in Philadelphia; Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; and Trenton, N.J. The RIAA declined to say which ISPs were the subject of the lawsuits.

According to the group, three of the four suits filed in January have been approved by the courts and have moved to the discovery process, which means that subpoenas for the John Doe identities have been issued to the Internet service providers involved. Two of those individuals, who were notified by their ISPs before being officially identified through the court, have agreed to settle.

Previously, the RIAA said settlements in the music-swapping lawsuits have averaged about $3,000 but that the new John Doe process might trigger higher settlements, because the legal process is becoming more expensive than the model used for the RIAA lawsuits filed last year.

A total of 381 people have now settled with the group, up from 233 in mid-January, according to the RIAA.

The RIAA's model is spreading across national borders. The Canadian Recording Industry Association said last week that it is seeking court orders for the identity of 29 alleged file swappers, in a prelude to filing its own copyright infringement suits. A court heard arguments on that issue Monday but adjourned until March 12 without a ruling.