VOL. 121 | NO. 98 | Tuesday, May 9, 2006
No Swords or Eye Patches Needed for Modern Piracy
By Andy Meek
Six computer users in Memphis and the surrounding area have been sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for illegally downloading music from the Internet, an act for which each could pay a fine of more than $4,000.
The litigation was part of a continued nationwide crackdown on illegal song-swapping, a form of music piracy to which the RIAA attributes losses of more than $4 billion a year.
Including the six people in West Tennessee, the RIAA has filed 235 copyright infringement lawsuits in recent weeks, court proceedings that zeroed in on illegal music-sharing from coast to coast.
Like a stereo system with the volume knob cranked all the way up, the reverb from this and previous court actions continues to be heard. To date, the three-year-old attack launched by the trade association has resulted in more than 18,000 lawsuits, most of which have been settled out of court; others are pending.
Defining theft in digital age
The local suits, filed in federal court for the Western District of Tennessee, allege that people such as Sandra Anderson - who actually lives in Hardin County - illegally distributed music by using song-sharing services like Kazaa, though which particular computer program used is not named in the suit.
Anderson, according to court filings, is a resident of Savannah, Tenn., a rural town of fewer than 10,000 people that's two hours directly east of Memphis. She said she is aware of the suit against her but denies actually using her personal computer to download music from the Internet.
"It might have been somebody using my computer, but it wasn't me," she said.
"Those suits are for items that have been obtained illegally and not paid for commercially. Those artists are not putting their own music out there for free."
- Katherine Sage
Senior project coordinator for the Recording Academy of Memphis
The suit against Anderson includes more than 40 pages of songs that it alleges were downloaded illegally. Plaintiffs in the case against her include Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Arista Records LLC and BMG Music.
"I don't really have an opinion about it right now," she said. Asked whether she's begun negotiating a settlement arrangement with the record companies, she responded, "I shouldn't say one way or the other."
Don't go there
A spokesman for the RIAA said copyright law allows for fines of between $750 and $150,000 for each instance of copyright infringement. The average settlement amount the RIAA negotiates falls somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000.
But while the settlement agreements differ, the industry's method of tracking illegal file sharing does not, as the local court action shows. Hewing to its established formula, court documents reveal the RIAA subpoenaed personal contact information on Anderson and the five other local computer users from Internet service providers.
It's a person's IP - or Internet protocol - address that leads the RIAA to a specific Internet service provider. The IP address is a string of numbers that serves as an identifying tag for individual computers, and anyone using the Internet has one.
It's the first bread crumb the trade association uses to pick up the trail that eventually leads to an actual person.
Recording industry officials find IP addresses by accessing song-swapping networks, like any other Average Joe. They search for anyone uploading songs copyrighted by major record companies.
Paying for the sound of music:
- A nationwide crackdown on Internet piracy began three years ago, with more than 18,000 suits brought so far by the recording industry against illegal song-swappers
- 235 computer users caught up in latest round; six in West Tennessee
- So far, no suits have resulted in trials. Average price of individual settlements: $4,000 to $5,000
"When we find an individual who is offering those songs, we take note of the songs that were in that person's shared folder - that is, the songs they were illegally making available for others to copy," said RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy. "We also take note of their IP address, which is publicly accessible information.
"That becomes the basis of a John Doe complaint. It's known as that because, at that point, we don't yet know what the defendant's name is."
Squashed by a giant
After approaching a local court with a subpoena for personal information from a user's ISP, the ISP hands over the information, which the RIAA then uses to send the person in question a letter inviting them to begin a settlement discussion.
That's the first point at which someone like Anderson learns that the long arm of the $40 billion music industry is poised to come crashing down.
"Those suits are for items that have been obtained illegally and not paid for commercially," said Katherine Sage, senior project coordinator for the Recording Academy of Memphis. "Those artists are not putting their own music out there for free."
Jay Bowen, an attorney with the Nashville firm of Bowen Riley Warnock & Jacobson PLC, is listed as the lead attorney for each of the record companies involved in the local suits. His firm is the Tennessee counsel for the RIAA.
Bowen has been involved in several colorful music copyright cases during his career.
Earlier this year, he represented a record label in a legal showdown against a rival label over similarities in three songs on a multi-million-selling rap album. In an earlier case, he defended singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, best known for his radio hit "Lullaby," in a copyright infringement suit.
"We have filed some actions, and I believe others have been filed in the Western District of Tennessee before," said Bowen.
In March, the U.S. Attorney's office for the Middle District of Tennessee, along with the Memphis Division of the FBI, announced two federal indictments that involved two people posting songs from a Ryan Adams & the Cardinals CD, "Jacksonville City Nights," on the Internet before it was commercially released.
Bowen, acting as the local arm of the RIAA, has turned his attention toward fast-forwarding the process of making people who download music illegally and engage in other forms of copyright infringement pay up for it. So far, the trade association has some 4,500 settlements under its belt.