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Hold the Music

The RIAA's lawsuit against music file sharers hits close to home

By Joy Lanzendorfer

In what is perhaps one of the biggest temper tantrums ever thrown by a trade group over changing market conditions, the Recording Industry Association of America has started suing users over file sharing. Earlier this month, it filed 261 of what will "ultimately be thousands" of lawsuits against people who share their music collection on programs like Kazaa and Grokster.

The RIAA is able to invade people's personal computers because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Through this law, the RIAA can go to anyone's Internet service provider and subpoena personal user information without a judge's approval or even the user's knowledge.

The North Bay has not escaped the RIAA's scrutiny. Petaluma residents Richard and Julie Warner were notified that they may be sued. Their teens have shared some 1,420 songs, including some music by the Smashing Pumpkins and Mariah Carey, according to the Wall Street Journal. Julie Warner says their lawyer has advised them not to talk to the press. She adds that though she has been informed that her information was subpoenaed, she has not yet seen the subpoenas herself.

The RIAA's actions have made some nervous. Sonoma State University sent a letter out to students warning them of the consequences of downloading music.

"It is important that the campus community be aware that [the] downloading and uploading of copyrighted music and movies is illegal. Damages can range from $200 to $150,000 per infringement," the letter reads.

Though SSU is protected from litigation for the most part, it still wants students to be aware of the seriousness of their actions, according to chief information officer Sam Scalise.

"I think that a lot of college students have grown up in an environment where they have been downloading since high school, and it's never been pointed out to them that it's wrong," he says. "Sometimes it's just a matter of somebody telling them what's legal and illegal."

Others have started fighting back. The day after the RIAA filed the 261 suits, Novato resident Eric Parke filed a civil suit in the Marin County Superior Court alleging that the amnesty program the RIAA offers users constitutes fraudulent business practices.

The RIAA's amnesty program is called Clean Slate. It says that if people sign a notarized affidavit stating they will no longer download music and that they will delete any songs they have already downloaded, the RIAA will wipe the slate clean and not pursue legal action.

But Parke's suit says the fine print of the agreement does not, in fact, offer any real protection against future legal actions. The RIAA does not destroy data on the user and is free to bring up new lawsuits, according to Ira Rothken, the San Rafael attorney representing Parke.

"Not only does the RIAA keep the data on the people who sign the Clean Slate agreement, they have an admission of guilt from them," Rothken says.

Parke, who does not download music himself, is seeking an injunction from the RIAA to stop these practices. He is not seeking any money.

"Eric is suing on behalf of the people of California," says Rothken. "If someone like Eric didn't do this, maybe no one would. He has the public interest at heart."

Other efforts against the RIAA have popped up as well. Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan., introduced legislation to Congress that would require the music companies to file a formal lawsuit to obtain identities of file swappers. Boycott efforts through sites like www.boycott-riaa.com have gained popularity online.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco has had 44,000 people sign a petition to stop the RIAA. The group also maintains an online database at www.eff.org for people to check whether the RIAA has subpoenaed their IP address or user name.

The RIAA, however, feels it's well within its right to sue people who are stealing its music. But some question how effective it is for the trade group to sue its own customers. And while everyone involved wants to see their favorite artists get paid, others are skeptical about the RIAA's motives.

"These lawsuits are all about control," says Jason Schultz of the EFF. "For the last 50 years, the recording industry has controlled how you listen to music and how music is distributed. There's a whole world here with new technology that takes away that control. That scares the recording industry."

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From the September 25-October 1, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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