The music industry’s largest trade group filed 261 copyright lawsuits and threatened thousands more yesterday, part of an intensified campaign to discourage people from sharing songs over the Internet.
The group, the Recording Industry Association of America, also offered “amnesty” to song swappers, saying it would not sue them if they promise in writing not to do it again.
“Nobody likes playing the heavy, [but] there comes a time when you have to stand up and take appropriate action,” said the group’s president, Cary Sherman, who compared illegal music downloads to shoplifting.
The RIAA blames online piracy for depressed music sales. According to reports, sales have declined 31 percent in the past two years.
The lawsuits are aimed at the most active song traders, the RIAA said. It did not identify which Internet users it was suing or where they live. U.S. copyright laws allow for fines of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person’s computer.
An estimated 60 million Americans, half of them teenagers, use file-sharing networks that allow them to locate and retrieve for free virtually any song by any musician within moments.
Most Internet users acknowledge that music-trading is illegal, but the practice has flourished because copyright statutes are among the most commonly flouted laws online.
The federal courthouse in Boston reported receiving some lawsuits; court officials said they were assigning them to judges. It was not known late yesterday whether any lawsuits had been filed in courthouses in the Washington area.
“So much is not known right now. More information about the lawsuits is going to come to light, but only after a lot of gumshoe work,” said Megan E. Gray, a lawyer in the District who specializes in intellectual property laws.
The RIAA named as defendant in each lawsuit the person who paid for the household Internet account. Lawyers said that in some states, such as California, parents are not explicitly liable for copyright infringement by minor children.
“We think it’s a very good thing for parents to be aware of what their 14-year-old kids are doing,” Mr. Sherman said.
“Some of my grandkids got in there,” said Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, adding that his son had explained the situation in an e-mail to the association. “I didn’t do it, and I don’t feel like I’m responsible. It’s been stopped now, I guarantee you that.”
Another defendant, Lisa Schamis of New York, said her Internet provider had warned her two months ago that record industry lawyers had asked for her name and address, but she said she had no idea that she might be sued. She acknowledged downloading “lots” of music over file-sharing networks, but said she hadn’t known it was illegal.
Under the amnesty program, the association promises not to sue Internet users if they sign a notarized confession and promise to delete the songs from their computers.
If the person is found swapping songs in the future, the RIAA could file criminal charges, which carry heftier fines.
The amnesty offer does not apply to people who are targets of copyright subpoenas. The RIAA previously filed more than 1,500 subpoenas nationwide to gather information for the lawsuits; overseas users have not been targeted.
In some cases, the subpoenas cited as few as five songs as “representative recordings” of music files available for downloading from the users. The RIAA previously had indicated that its lawyers would target only Internet users who offer substantial collections of MP3 song files.
“If you’ve already been targeted, it doesn’t seem like it would be appropriate to invite amnesty in that situation. It would be an invitation to infringe until you get caught. Nobody gets a free pass here,” Mr. Sherman said.
The amnesty offer is “our version of an olive branch,” he said.
Representatives for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes privacy rights for Internet users, attacked the program.
“To call it an amnesty program is very misleading. We’ve termed it a ‘shamnesty,’” said Gwen Hinze, a staff attorney for the foundation, which is supported by about 10,000 dues-paying members, most of them individuals. Many of the group’s members are people concerned with consumer rights on the Internet, she said.
The amnesty program does not protect song swappers from lawsuits by music labels not represented by the RIAA, or by music publishers or musicians who own the copyrights to their songs, Ms. Hinze said.
The RIAA represents the industry’s largest labels.
Other defense lawyers argued that people who agree not to use file-sharing services could be surrendering future rights if Congress or the courts declare such use to be legal.
“The amnesty program gives very limited protection. I’m sure many lawyers would advise their clients not to take it,” she said.
The RIAA also said it has negotiated $3,000 settlements with fewer than 10 Internet users who learned they might be sued after the association sent copyright subpoenas to their Internet providers. Mr. Sherman predicted more settlements, but the price to settle for anyone named in a lawsuit will be higher.
The announcement yesterday marked the first time that the RIAA has targeted hundreds of individuals with lawsuits. In the summer, the association sued four college students — including a sophomore forced to hand over his life savings — for file-sharing.
The RIAA eventually settled with the students. Two of them went public and received sympathetic news coverage. One raised his $12,500 fine through online donations.
The first wave of lawsuits was timed to the return to college of students to ensure that the suits would be discussed widely on campus.
Mr. Sherman predicted “subsequent waves of litigation,” numbers largely determined by “how many lawsuits we can manage at any one time.” He said money earned from civil penalties or settlements would go toward paying for the association’s antipiracy campaign.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.