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RIAA drops amnesty program

The recording industry trade group ends a program designed to protect illegal file sharers who come clean, in the wake of questions about whether it could really offer full protection.

The Recording Industry Association of America has pulled the plug on a controversial program that offered file sharers amnesty from the group's legal campaign to stop the unauthorized swapping of music files over the Internet.

The trade group quietly announced on its Web site that it had ended the Clean Slate offer earlier this month, but the news didn't become widely known until Monday, when the RIAA submitted a document to a California court that contended that the program was misleading.

Clean Slate had promised not to prosecute individuals who vowed to erase unauthorized content from their computers, destroy hard copies of illegally obtained copyrighted materials and abstain from future file swapping--all in a notarized apology sent to the trade group.

"...the program is no longer necessary or appropriate."
-- Attorneys for the RIAA,
in a legal brief

The amnesty program debuted in September 2003, around the same time that the RIAA announced its first round of lawsuits against illegal file sharers. Almost immediately, the offer came under attack from experts who believed the program provided limited protection from potential lawsuits launched by organizations other than the RIAA, and the group itself was served with the California suit.

In a legal memo filed Monday, the RIAA sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, based on the fact that the group had ended the amnesty program. In that document, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the trade group's attorneys argue that the claim, brought by California resident Eric Parke, was rendered moot when the organization ended the offer of legal protection.

In the court filing, penned by attorneys Steven A. Marenburg and Christopher M. Newman, of the Los Angeles-based firm Irell & Manella, the trade group admits that only 1,108 individuals ever signed up under the initiative and points out that its file-sharing lawsuits have had far more success in discouraging the practice than did the amnesty program.

"As public awareness about the illegality of unauthorized copying and distribution of music files over peer-to-peer computing has dramatically increased since the inception of the program, the RIAA has concluded that the program is no longer necessary or appropriate," wrote the lawyers.

"In the six months since the program was announced, the lawsuits against unauthorized peer-to-peer distributors have generated a great deal of publicity, leaving little room for any doubt that any individuals still engaged in this practice know their actions to be subject to legal sanctions."

"Even though the RIAA is responsible for the current lawsuits...the offer was pretty weak."
-- Josh Bernoff, analyst,
Forrester Research

From the time that the RIAA launched Clean Slate, experts made some of the same complaints expressed in the Parke lawsuit--namely, that the program did not guarantee that participants would be protected completely from all forms of litigation. Specifically, the offer did not protect against lawsuits filed by record labels.

Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, said he never saw the point of the program.

"Filing one lawsuit was more effective than signing up a thousand people for amnesty," Bernoff said. "Even though the RIAA is responsible for the current lawsuits, and record companies have largely avoided filing suits themselves, as far as protection goes from that sort of action, the offer was pretty weak."

Bernoff said that fear of a lawsuit serves as a far more effective tool in discouraging file sharing, and he questioned why individuals would want to draw attention to themselves by signing up for the pardon program. The analyst believes that, in order to effectively deter unauthorized file sharing, the RIAA should focus on using technology to make illegal networks less effective, while fostering a more profitable environment for legitimate download services.

The RIAA continues to flex its muscles in court, recently initiating legal claims against 532 additional individuals, including 89 people at 21 universities. The group has now filed suits against several thousand purported file sharers.

However, it remains debatable whether the legal strategy has actually cut down on unlawful file sharing. The NPD Group, an independent market research firm, released a study that indicated that peer-to-peer usage was up by 14 percent in November, compared with September, when the RIAA filed its first suits. That upturn followed six months of declines in digital file sharing.

Another study, published recently by researchers at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, seemed to poke holes in the idea on which the RIAA spawned all of its anti-file sharing efforts--that file sharing led to a noticeable fall off in overall record sales. Big record labels have seen their sales slide precipitously in the past several years, and have blamed the falling revenue in large part on rampant free music downloads online. But the study concluded that high levels of file swapping seemed to translate into an effect on album sales that was "statistically indistinguishable from zero."

As the RIAA continues its push to shut down digital pirates, the industry group also continues to suffer its own defeat online, as its Web site was unavailable on Tuesday. RIAA representatives refused to speculate on the cause, but they admitted the site began having problems Monday afternoon. In March, the group's site was made unavailable for nearly five days after it was apparently attacked by a variant of the MyDoom computer worm.