The Recording Industry Association of America will soon begin gathering evidence for use in what could be "thousands of lawsuits" against individual music file swappers.
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The RIAA cited its efforts to educate the public about the illegality of file swapping and the easy availability of extensive legal downloading services as precursors to its latest effort to target individual file swappers who, it contends, are engaged in piracy.
"We cannot stand by while piracy takes a devastating toll on artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers and everyone in the music industry," the RIAA said.
The industry association will use software that can scan peer-to-peer networks for copyrighted material and download the suspect files while also capturing the date and time of the download as evidence. Additional information obtained from the systems hosting the files will lead the RIAA to the file swapper's ISP.
Those ISPs will then be served with subpoenas under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), requiring them to divulge the name and address of the individual hosting the files.
Individuals found swapping copyrighted material could face legal action from the RIAA in the form of civil lawsuits and even criminal prosecution, according to a statement attributed to RIAA president Cary Sherman.
The decision to pursue legal action against individuals is just the latest move by the RIAA to turn up the heat on file swappers on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and Grokster.
In April, the group won a court case forcing Verizon Internet Services to turn over the names of customers who downloaded hundreds of songs over a P-to-P network.
Given the group's focus on online music swapping, the threat of mass lawsuits should notbe surprising, according to one legal expert.
"It's a time-honored American tradition to threaten to sue someone," said Jonathan Zittrain, of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School
The recent court ruling against Verizon will embolden the RIAA to seek customer information from other ISPs, he said, although he added, "We're probably talking about thousands of threats [of lawsuits]."
However, many internet users may eventually decide to stay off P-to-P networks, he said.
The recording industry sees the fight, coupled with its tentative efforts at online distribution such as Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, as the keys to its survival, Zittrain said.
"They are against the wall. I think they really believe that if they don't play a strong hand, with defensive moves like [the lawsuits] and offensive moves like iTunes, they're gone."
Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service