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Music Industry Warns File Sharers They Could Be Sued

The industry late last week sent “lawsuit notification” letters to a total of 204 people accused of illegally distributing over 1,000 copyrighted songs through peer-to-peer networks, such as Kazaa and Gnutella, according to RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy.

The letter begins with the warning that recording companies “intend to file a lawsuit against you shortly for copyright infringement,” because “we have gathered substantial evidence that you have been using a peer-to-peer network” for illegal activities.

The recipient has 10 days to contact the RIAA and discuss a settlement to “avoid litigation.” Otherwise, lawsuits will be filed by the end of the month, according to a sample of the letter provided by the industry group, whose clients include the nation’s largest record labels.

The letter ends with some advice: “We encourage you to consult with an attorney immediately to advise you on your rights and responsibilities, since we are obviously not your lawyers.”

The letters represent the latest action in the industry’s ongoing battle against the distribution of copyrighted music over the Internet, which it blames for the slump in music sales.

Last month, the RIAA filed lawsuits against 261 people for copyright infringement without any warning to the defendants, prompting criticism from members of Congress and advocacy groups.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), head of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations, last month convened a hearing about digital piracy and the legality of the RIAA’s enforcement methods.

Coleman strongly reprimanded the RIAA for filing lawsuits without first notifying the defendants they were even suspected of copyright infringement. Coleman also commented that several defendants did not discover they were being sued by the RIAA until they received calls from news reporters.

The industry obtained the names for lawsuits after filing over 1,600 subpoenas under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which allows copyright holders to issue “expedited” subpoenas to Internet service providers (ISPs) demanding the identification and contact information of its clients suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted material.

Unlike standard subpoenas, the DMCA subpoenas are filed without any infringement charges, are not subject to judicial review and require no notice to the defendant.

Upon sending out the pre-litigation letters, RIAA President Cary Sherman on Friday said the music industry trade group takes the “concerns expressed by policy makers and others very seriously.”

“In light of the comments we have heard, we want to go the extra mile and offer illegal file sharers an additional chance to work this out short of legal action.”

“Our objective here is not to win lawsuits — it is to foster a business environment where legal online music services and bricks-and-mortar retail stores can flourish,” Sherman added.

Coleman on Monday called the RIAA’s decision of prior notification a “good first step,” though he added that he still has some concerns with the association’s approach.

But advocacy groups, such as Public Knowledge, appraised the RIAA’s action with more skepticism.

Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn — who supports the industry’s crackdown on the more egregious copyright violators — called the 10-day advance notification insufficient for the defendant to find a lawyer and prepare an appropriate response.

“What we had really hoped the recording industry would do is notify users that they were the subject of a DMCA subpoena at or around the time that the industry received their identifying information,” Sohn told the Online NewsHour.

“The letter falls short in that the industry can conduct surveillance for days, weeks or months without the subject ever knowing about it,” she noted.

The RIAA says it has settled with 64 defendants so far. Settlement payments have ranged between $2,000 and $3,000 each.

Under the DMCA, the music companies could have been awarded $750,000 or more if they won their cases at trial.

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