- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Brianna LaHara is a perfect example of the wide net record labels cast this week when they filed lawsuits against 261 persons for illegally sharing copyrighted song files.

Music companies had no idea they would reel in a 12-year-old in their attempt to curb file sharing.

The record labels also have sued an unemployed woman in Torrance, Calif., a college football player in Colorado and a professor of photography at Yale University. A computer support technician in suburban Texas, a school bus driver outside San Francisco and a homemaker in Texas also were caught in the dragnet.

Except for being targets of an unprecedented legal effort, the 261 persons seemingly have little in common.

“There’s a broad demographic engaged in this activity,” said Matt Oppenheim, senior vice president at the Recording Industry Association of America, the lobbying arm of the record companies.

Court documents indicate that more than half the accused come from six states.

The companies sued 45 persons in Illinois, 40 in California, 36 in Massachusetts, 26 in New York, 21 in Texas, and 20 in Colorado.

Fewer suits were filed in a handful of other states.

Record companies hadn’t filed any lawsuits in the Washington area as of yesterday, but various labels had filed an estimated 1,400 subpoenas, a clerk in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said. That indicates that hundreds of lawsuits could be filed soon against local residents.

Their backgrounds may be diverse, but the digital defendants in the first wave of lawsuits share surprise at being the targets of legal action.

Many of the accused in Texas had not been served with the suits as of yesterday, including Tammie Martin of Greenville.

“She was floored when she found out [from a reporter at The Washington Times] about it,” said Jack Wilhelm, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, who represents Mrs. Martin.

Mr. Wilhelm disputes the veracity of the legal claim against Mrs. Martin, a homemaker and mother of two who uses her computer at home to send e-mail and shop on EBay.

“She’s not one who is wildly familiar with how computers work,” he said.

Matt McChesney also was stunned at being targeted. The 21-year old is a junior at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who plays defensive end for the school’s football team.

“He was quite surprised and quite upset when he found out,” said Dave Plati, spokesman for the university’s athletic department.

Mr. Plati said university officials have advised Mr. McChesney to get legal help, adding that the school can’t help fund his legal defense because it would violate National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.

Diane Garrett, a 46-year old computer support technician, quickly figured out why she was a target.

“I have teenagers,” the Garland, Texas, resident said. “I told them — don’t download anything else.”

All the defendants face fines of $750 to $150,000 for each music file downloaded. Brianna’s mother, Sylvia Torres, was the first to settle, paying a $2,000 fine.

Collecting money shouldn’t be the aim of record labels, Mr. Wilhelm said.

“Why do they want money? Why don’t they just send someone to their homes and get them to stop? They’re going to mess up a lot of people’s lives. The record industry needs to protect their records, not ruin people’s lives,” he said.

The industry says it is losing millions of dollars because of file sharing, and the legal action coincides with a report that concludes that compact disc sales continue to fall. Sales declined 31 percent in the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2000, the industry lobbying group said.

So record companies targeted people distributing copyrighted music files on file-sharing systems Kazaa, Grokster, Imesh, Gnutella and Blubster.

Thousands more lawsuits could be filed in the coming months to chip away at the widespread file-sharing phenomenon. About 11 million homes were sharing files actively as of May, according to research firm ComScore Networks.

Some people sued said they simply had no idea that file sharing was illegal.

“I had no idea it was wrong,” said Ronna Leonard of Torrance, Calif.

Mrs. Leonard, 49, said she has been out of work two years and can’t afford to pay any fine the record companies may issue.

“You can’t get blood from a turnip,” she said. “They’re wasting their time with me.”

Mrs. Garrett said she would have stopped her children from downloading song files had she known of the legal danger.

“I wouldn’t have let any music be downloaded if I knew this was coming,” she said.

But the recording industry says ignorance is no excuse.

“It is difficult for me to appreciate when someone says they didn’t know [it is illegal] because the message has been out there in force,” Mr. Oppenheim said.

• Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.

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