Music industry sues over downloads Hundreds of people were accused of copying and sharing songs. A trade group says pirating has hurt sales. Music industry sues 261, offers amnesty to others

Posted: September 09, 2003

The recording industry sued 261 music fans in U.S. federal courts yesterday, accusing each of illegally downloading and sharing at least 1,000 songs over the Internet.

The civil lawsuits could eventually number in the thousands, said the Recording Industry Association of America, whose members include major record labels BMG, EMI, Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Warner Music.

This summer, the RIAA issued about 1,600 subpoenas to universities and Internet service providers, demanding that they identify those allegedly sharing copyrighted music.

For the industry, the stakes are huge; the RIAA blames the trading of pirated music files for the industry's declining sales, to the tune of a 31 percent decline in sales of compact discs in the last three years. It is also aware of the pitfalls of suing its potential customers.

"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," RIAA president Cary Sherman said in a statement. "But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action. We simply cannot allow online piracy to continue destroying the livelihoods of artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers, and everyone in the music industry."

The RIAA is offering "amnesty" to those who want to avoid being sued. It requires those who share copyrighted music to voluntarily identify themselves and pull unlawfully obtained files off their computers. The offer does not apply to any of those sued yesterday.

Some defense lawyers cautioned yesterday against signing the RIAA agreement. "There are a bunch of potential problems," said Megan Gray, a Washington lawyer. The deal, she said, protects a music-sharer only from legal action by the RIAA, not from its members or other rights-holders, such as those who write a song or play on a recording.

U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer. The RIAA has been settling for less: Yesterday, it announced $3,000 agreements with fewer than 10 people whose Internet service providers had received subpoenas.

The industry previously reached agreements with four college students accused of running peer-to-peer file-sharing programs. The students each paid $12,000 to $17,500.

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R., Minn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs' permanent subcommittee on investigations, has ordered hearings on the industry's enforcement strategy. While he said yesterday that he empathized with those whose music was being stolen, he questioned the RIAA's offer.

"An amnesty that could involve millions of kids submitting and signing legal documents that plead themselves guilty to the Recording Industry Association of America may not be the best approach to achieving a balance between protecting copyright laws and punishing those who violate those laws," Coleman, a former roadie for the rock band Ten Years After, said in a statement.

Contact staff writer Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5958 or

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