The RIAA said the 261 lawsuits targeted individuals whom the industry described as “major offenders” by distributing on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each through peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, such as Kazaa and Morpheus.
The RIAA has also warned it could file thousands more lawsuits under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal law designed to protect copyright holders from unauthorized distribution and replication of their materials over digital media, such as the Internet.
The first wave of lawsuits came as part of the RIAA’s aggressive anti-piracy campaign, designed to halt the downloading of music files which the industry blames for the current downturn in music sales.
Over the last few months, the RIAA issued over 1,600 subpoenas, seeking the identities of Internet users who allegedly downloaded a “substantial amount” of copyrighted works.
Under the law, each defendant could face penalties between $750 to $150,000 per song found on a person’s computer. Despite such maximum fines, the RIAA has settled some cases for as little as $3,000.
“Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation,” Cary Sherman, the RIAA’s president, told the Associated Press. “But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action.”
Forty-six of the lawsuits, or 18 percent of the total 261, were filed against people in the Boston area; others were filed in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and elsewhere.
Among those sued Monday were an elderly man in Texas who rarely uses his computer, a Yale University professor, an unemployed woman in New York, and a 12-year-old girl in New York City.
Several of the known defendants claim they were unaware that downloading and sharing music files was illegal.
Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, told the AP he was surprised by the lawsuit since he never used file-sharing networks. Pickle said his teenage grandchildren downloaded music onto his computer when they visited his home.
“I didn’t do it, and I don’t feel like I’m responsible,” Pickle said. “It’s been stopped now, I guarantee you that.”
Timothy Davis, a professor of photography at Yale University, told the AP that he downloaded about 500 songs from other online file-swappers when his Internet Service Provider (ISP) notified him about the RIAA’s interest in his Internet usage.
“I’ve been pretending it was going to go away,” Davis said. He added that he would immediately stop sharing music files.
Lisa Schamis, a 26-year-old from New York, said her ISP warned her two months ago that recording industry lawyers had asked for her name and address.
She admitted to downloading “lots” of music over file-sharing networks, which are legal, but said she had no idea she could be sued. A California court in April ruled that file-sharing networks are not responsible for copyright infringement themselves because they handle other non-copyrighted files.
“This is ridiculous. … I didn’t understand it was illegal,” Schamis told the AP.
A 12-year-old defendant, Brianna LaHara, told the New York Post she was terrified to learn she was among the hundreds of people sued for alleged copyright infringement.
“I thought it was OK to download music because my mom paid a service fee for it. Out of all people, why did they pick me?”
Brianna’s mother, Sylvia Torres, said the lawsuit came as “a total shock,” since she was not aware that downloading music from peer-to-peer networks was illegal.
Torres said she signed up for Kazaa’s music-swapping service three months ago, and paid a $29.99 service charge.
Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations, this summer initiated an official inquiry into the RIAA’s methods of identifying and tracking the Internet users accused of copyright infringement. Coleman plans to hold congressional hearings on the matter this fall.
“They (the recording industry) have a legitimate interest that needs to be protected, but are they protecting it in a way that’s too broad and overreaching?” Coleman said.
“I don’t want to make criminals out of 60 million kids, even though kids and grandkids are doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”
Meanwhile, the RIAA recently offered amnesty to file-swappers who admit to illegally sharing music files over the Internet, pledge to stop downloading music and delete the songs from their computers.
In exchange for their pledge to stop downloading music, the RIAA promised not to sue the file-swappers.
Sherman described the amnesty program as “our version of an olive branch.”
Critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, caution that the RIAA’s amnesty program would not protect the confessed downloaders from being sued by record companies, music publishers, and musicians that possess independent music rights.