The music industry’s legal action represents the largest number of lawsuits filed at one time since the RIAA launched its controversial anti-piracy campaign last summer.
The RIAA, a trade group representing the largest record labels, blames music file-sharing via online peer-to-peer networks for a worldwide decline in album sales.
Lawyers for the RIAA filed the newest cases against “John Doe” defendants, identified only by the numeric addresses of the computers they used to access the Internet, known as an Internet protocol (IP) address.
Once a “John Doe” suit has been filed, the plaintiff, or RIAA, requires permission from judges before it can subpoena the information necessary to learn the specific name and address of the defendants.
The industry’s latest salvo against online piracy follows a decision last month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that expedited subpoenas allowed by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act could no longer be used to force Internet service providers to identify music downloaders without first filing a lawsuit.
The court’s decision was widely viewed as a setback for the RIAA’s anti-piracy campaign, since the industry’s use of the expedited subpoenas had become one of its most effective tools to quickly track down alleged Internet copyright infringers.
The resumed legal action was intended to reinforce the industry’s anti-piracy message and dissuade computer users from illegally swapping songs online — despite the court’s ruling.
“Our campaign against illegal file sharers is not missing a beat,” Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, said. “The message to illegal file sharers should be as clear as ever.”
All 532 lawsuits were filed in Washington and New York — home to Verizon Internet Services Inc. and Time Warner Inc. and a few other major Internet service providers — although the recording association said it expected to learn through traditional subpoenas that the defendants live across the United States.
The recording association said each person illegally distributed an average of more than 800 songs. The defendants face potential civil penalties or settlements that could cost them thousands of dollars.
Because of the court’s ruling, the RIAA said it could no longer pre-notify defendants and offer them the chance to settle before a formal lawsuit is filed.
Nevertheless, the industry wanted to go “the extra mile” to develop a variation of the settlement program, Sherman said.
“After learning the identity of an illegal file-sharer through a ‘John Doe’ lawsuit, but prior to amending the complaint to reflect the infringer’s name and address, the RIAA would offer the opportunity to settle the case before proceeding further with the litigation,” Sherman said.
Sherman said the settlement amounts “may rise” above the average $3,000 because the RIAA can no longer use the more efficient, and less costly, DMCA subpoenas.
Critics, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, called the industry’s latest legal maneuver misguided, but said the new “John Doe” subpoena process offered more due process and privacy protections than the “expedited” subpoenas.
“While it’s an improvement that the record industry now has to play by the same rules as everyone else who goes into court, they are still heading in the wrong direction,” EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn said in a press release.
“The recording industry should be giving America’s millions of file-sharers the same deal that radio stations have had for decades: pay a fair fee, play whatever you want on whatever software works best for you,” she said.
More than 1,600 people have been sued by the RIAA since last year.