- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Four college students — including a sophomore who was forced to hand over his life savings — were the first targets of the recording industry’s effort to crack down on fans they say are stealing music by sharing it over the Internet.While the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) says it is fighting thieves, critics say the industry is alienating millions of music fans who engage in the practice of file-sharing, where digital files of tunes are swapped among computer users.

The legal floodgates opened wide when Verizon Communications was forced to turn over the names of four customers who the RIAA says engaged in Internet music piracy.

The RIAA said on June 19 the four users would receive cease-and-desist letters demanding they stop sharing illegal music for downloading or face lawsuits.

Six days later, the RIAA announced in both a daring and risky move it would file lawsuits against several hundred individuals accused of illegally downloading music.

“Anyone sharing files should stop immediately,” said RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss. “People will begin getting lawsuits in the next eight to 10 weeks. There will be no more cease-and-desist letters. We have been warning for years.”

“The message, if we got it out, it didn’t get across,” said Matt Oppenheim, vice president of business and legal affairs for the RIAA. “Since the level of illegal sharing has continued to grow, we have felt we had little choice at this point but to enforce our rights.”

Users can use software, such as Kazaa Media Desktop or Grokster, to search an online network of users’ shared files and then download those files directly from the user.

However, lawsuits against Kazaa and Grokster have produced little support for record companies, unlike the success they had in bringing another file-sharing network, Napster, to a halt.

In April, the U.S. District Court of Central California denied requests by the recording and motion picture industries to shut down Grokster, citing “undisputed substantial noninfringing uses for [the] software.”

Rob Malda, creator of Slashdot.org, a Web site dedicated to “News for nerds, stuff that matters,” agreed with the court’s decision.

“Sharing files is legal. Distributing copyrighted content is another matter, but the concept of simply sharing files in a peer-to-peer manner is obviously legal,” he said. “These programs shouldn’t be legislated anymore than using [Microsoft] Word to type out song lyrics should be. We need to separate usage of software from the software itself.”

The RIAA has appealedthe court’s decision.

In what now appears as a warning to the general public of things to come, the RIAA sued four college students in April for in excess of $90 billion for their file-sharing services at their respective universities.

All four students settled out of court, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) sophomore Jesse Jordan, who paid $12,000 to settle the RIAA suit after consulting with attorneys that the legal fees, even with a win in court, would far exceed the settlement cost.

“The amount was based upon every dime in my savings account,” Mr. Jordan said of his settlement.

“We thought the numbers we settled for were the right amount given the situation,” Mr. Oppenheim said.

Mr. Jordan ran a service from his Web site, www.chewplastic.com, that allowed students at RPI to locate and download shared files across the campus network.

“Basically, it is like suing Google because child porn comes up on their image search,” he said, explaining he could not control what was being shared though his Web site using a program called Phynd. “There is a musical-piracy problem, but it is not something I can stop, control or limit.”

Dan McAloon, an RPI information-technology undergraduate and friend of Mr. Jordan’s, compared the use of Phynd with a phone book.

“It tells you the location of something you are trying to find,” he said. “But it never actually makes a connection through the server. It really works almost identically to Google.”

Phynd works using software built into all modern operating systems, including Windows XP. The search can easily be accomplished using only built-in features on virtually all modern computers, explained Mr. McAloon.

Some good news for Mr. Jordan was the number of supporters who insisted on sending money to assist with his settlement costs. As of June 22, he had raised the total amount through his Web site.

Other terms of the settlement included the RIAA stating he did nothing wrong and the settlement was solely to cover the cost of litigation, said Mr. Jordan.

“I also have to make a reasonable effort to stop illegal music trade” through his Web site, he said. “I don’t think they want me to run my site anymore, but we shall see. It is still a question I haven’t really answered. I do plan on following the agreement.”

“Are [the RIAA] going to file mass litigation against 60 million Americans?” asked Wayne Rosso, Grokster president. “Almost 30 percent of Americans are file sharing. Hey, snap out of it, maybe the law needs to be fixed.”

While the RIAA may have been trying to force illegal downloads to slow, their decision to file lawsuits against many of the file sharers appears to have had the reverse effect for now.

“Downloads are up 10 percent,” said Mr. Rosso. “Wonderful marketing job up there [at the RIAA].”

“This is a long-term program,” Mr. Oppenheim said in response to the increase in downloads. “Growth has been increasing since their inception. This is a long-term effort by the RIAA that we believe over time will deter individuals infringing. If you don’t publicize, people won’t get the message.”

A potential solution Mr. Rosso suggested is a blanket compulsory license, similar to radio station licensing of music.

“We could have a flat fee to buy the license put upon the users at the Internet service provider level,” he said. “In their defense, we should be paying something. But you know, it’s a negotiation and they won’t come to the table.”

Mr. Malda said he believes if the cost of a typical compact disc wasn’t so high — now an average $12.75 each, according to the RIAA — file sharing would not be as big of a problem.

“The solution is for the content industry to make their product cost effective,” he said. “People clearly want the ability to download media. Peer-to-peer has numerous inherent problems: These systems aren’t trustworthy. But downloading from a pay service, you can expect a level of quality.”

Litigation against individual users on a massive scale will be detrimental to the RIAA in the long run, said Mr. Rosso. “If they want to alienate every one of their customers, this is a good way. No wonder their profits are down.”

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