The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) will begin gathering evidence and preparing lawsuits against individual computer users who are illegally offering to "share" substantial amounts of copyrighted music over peer-to-peer networks. In making the announcement, the music industry cited its multi-year effort to educate the public about the illegality of unauthorized downloading, and underscored the fact that major music companies have made vast catalogues of music available to dozens of services to help create legitimate, high quality and inexpensive alternatives to online piracy.
"The law is clear and the message to those who are distributing substantial quantities of music online should be equally clear -- this activity is illegal, you are not anonymous when you do it, and engaging in it can have real consequences," said RIAA president Cary Sherman. "We'd much rather spend time making music then dealing with legal issues in courtrooms. But we cannot stand by while piracy takes a devastating toll on artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers and everyone in the music industry."
The RIAA expects to use the data it collects as the basis for filing what could ultimately be thousands of lawsuits charging individual peer-to-peer music distributors with copyright infringement. The first round of suits could take place as early as mid-August.
Federal law and the federal courts have been quite clear on what is not legal. It is illegal to make available for download copyrighted works without permission of the copyright owner. Court decisions have affirmed this as well. In the recent Grokster decision, for example, the court confirmed that the users of that system were guilty of copyright infringement. And in last year's Aimster decision, the judge wrote that the idea that "ongoing, massive, and unauthorized distribution and copying of copyrighted works somehow constitutes 'personal use' is specious and unsupported."
To gather evidence against P2P users who make illegal downloading possible, the RIAA will be using software that scans the public directories available to any user of a peer-to-peer network. These directories, which allow users to find the material they are looking for, list all the files that other users of the network are currently offering to distribute. When the software finds a user who is offering to distribute copyrighted music files, it downloads some of the infringing files, along with the date and time it accessed the files.
Additional information that is publicly available from these systems allows the RIAA to then identify their Internet Service Provider (ISP). The RIAA can then serve a subpoena on the ISP requesting the name and address of the individual whose account was being used to distribute copyrighted music. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), ISPs must provide copyright holders with such information when there is reason to believe copyrights are being infringed. Almost all ISPs disclose this obligation in the User's Terms of Service.
Music industry leaders, along with an unprecedented coalition of other groups like the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA), the Country Music Association, the Gospel Music Association, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) songwriters, recording artists, retailers, and record companies have been educating music fans that the epidemic of illegal file sharing not only robs songwriters and recording artists of their livelihoods, it also undermines the future of music itself by depriving the industry of the resources it needs to find and develop new talent. In addition, it threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of less celebrated people in the music industry, from engineers and technicians to warehouse workers and record store clerks.
This message has been conveyed to the public in a series of print and broadcast ads featuring top recording artists. And, in the past two months, millions of Instant Messages were sent directly to infringers on the Kazaa and Grokster peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.