261 People Sued Over Sharing Music Online; Colleges Work on a Compromise
By ANDREA L. FOSTER
Record companies filed 261 lawsuits last week against people the companies accuse of sharing large amounts of music over the Internet in violation of copyright law, the Recording Industry Association of America announced. The group did not reveal the names of those sued, nor did it say how many of the defendants were college students. But according to the Associated Press, among those sued was Timothy M. Davis, a photography lecturer at Yale University. The association promised more such lawsuits -- possibly thousands -- in coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, a number of colleges are negotiating with online-music services to test a campuswide program under which colleges would pay the companies to let students download music legally. According to Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the test would start next spring. To encourage other file sharers to escape the lawsuit dragnet, Cary Sherman, the president of the RIAA, said the record companies would promise not to sue people for swapping music if they stepped forward voluntarily, admitted that they had traded music online, and promised not to do so again. He said individuals seeking amnesty would be required to sign a notarized statement saying that they had deleted from their computers any music files that they had obtained illegally. The amnesty program would not apply to people who have been sued or identified through subpoenas served on Internet service providers. Mr. Sherman said last week's lawsuits were filed in federal courts throughout the country, seeking damages and injunctive relief under the 1976 Copyright Act. The defendants have each made available, on average, more than 1,000 music files, the RIAA said in statement released on Monday. Under the law, copyright holders can sue for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each work illegally copied or distributed. The recording companies plan to let judges decide the amount of any damages awarded, said Mr. Sherman. The lawsuits are the long-promised second step in the recording industry's campaign to thwart the illegal sharing of music online. In the first step, it used a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to ask federal courts to issue more than 1,500 subpoenas to Internet service providers -- including colleges -- demanding that they identify individuals who had been uploading copyrighted music files.
Mr. Sherman said a handful of people identified through the subpoenas had already reached settlements, each paying the record companies about $3,000. He encouraged the defendants named in the new round of lawsuits to do the same. Lawyers who have said they were willing to defend those being sued offered suggestions about how any college students named in the lawsuits could defend themselves. Joseph W. Singleton, a lawyer in Beverly Hills, Calif., recommended that students band together to present a coordinated defense. Such a group might be able to garner public sympathy as well as save on legal fees, he said, estimating that an individual who contests a record-company lawsuit could face legal fees of $30,000 to $100,000. "I would suspect that your average college student is going to pretty much be defenseless, not necessarily because of the facts or the law, but because of the power of the RIAA," he said. "It's going to be able to hold their feet to the fire." A student who has been sued might also choose to declare bankruptcy, Mr. Singleton said. It's unclear whether a copyright-infringement judgment can be discharged in bankruptcy court, he said. Daniel N. Ballard, a Sacramento lawyer, said students who have been sued should seek legal advice. If they admit to liability and settle with the recording companies, he said, they might be opening themselves to subsequent criminal charges and lawsuits by music publishers because the companies claim copyrights only to the sound recordings. The industry group has been pressuring the U.S. Department of Justice to begin criminal prosecutions against file sharers, he said. "It's a very tricky situation," said Mr. Ballard. Apart from the lawsuits, some lawyers are advising those who share music online not to participate in the amnesty program. The industry group cannot be trusted to safeguard personal information, said Tom A. Lewry, a lawyer in Southfield, Mich. He represented Joseph Nievelt, one of four college students sued by the association in April. Mr. Nievelt settled with the industry group by agreeing to pay it $15,000 (The Chronicle, May 9). Mr. Spanier disclosed details of negotiations between college and online-music services during a news conference this month at which he discussed the progress of a committee he heads with Mr. Sherman, that is charged with prodding colleges to reduce illegal file sharing by students. The committee, called the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities, is made up of college administrators and entertainmentcompany executives. In June, the committee asked for information from online-media companies that could provide campuses with music and video services. Another request for information went out to technology companies that could help colleges with blocking or filtering technologies to limit file sharing.
Penn State and the University of Rochester are expected to be part of the pilot program. Other colleges that will be involved may be disclosed by the end of this month, Mr. Spanier said. "We're hoping for a variety of institutions," he said. If the pilot is successful, colleges could consider making it permanent. Higher-education officials have discussed the idea, for example, of having colleges include a subscription to a music service in tuition or student-activities fees. Mr. Spanier said Penn State and other colleges would use institutional funds to pay for the pilot service on their campuses, rather than charge students individually. Penn State has yet to decide whether to make the service available for all of its students or just a limited number, he said. Online-music services would be well served by offering colleges a "low priced" option permitting students to listen to music over the Internet, Mr. Spanier said. "If they can develop a brand name and service loyalty to millions of college students, they have a leg up in developing a customer base for decades ahead," he said of the companies. http://chronicle.com Section: Information Technology Volume 50, Issue 4, Page A33