WASHINGTON — The music industry's largest trade group filed 261 copyright lawsuits across the country today against Internet users who trade songs online, an aggressive campaign to discourage piracy through fears of expensive civil penalties or settlements.
The Recording Industry Association of America warned it ultimately may file thousands of cases. Its first round was aimed at what it described as "major offenders" illegally distributing on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each.
"Some of my grandkids got in there," said Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, who said his son had explained the situation in an e-mail to the recording industry association. "I didn't do it, and I don't feel like I'm responsible. It's been stopped now, I guarantee you that."
Pickle said his teen-aged grandchildren used his computer during visits to his home.
"I'm not a computer-type person," Pickle said. "They come in and get on the computer. How do I get out of this? Dadgum it, got to get a lawyer on this."
An estimated 60 million Americans participate in file-sharing networks, using software that makes it simple for computer users to locate and retrieve for free virtually any song by any artists within moments. Internet users broadly acknowledge music-trading is illegal, but the practice has flourished in recent years since copyright statutes are among the most popularly flouted laws online.
"Nobody likes playing the heavy," said RIAA President Cary Sherman, who compared illegal music downloads to shoplifting. "There comes a time when you have to stand up and take appropriate action."
The RIAA did not identify for reporters which Internet users it was suing or where they live. Federal courthouses in Boston and elsewhere reported receiving some lawsuits; court officials were assigning them to judges.
"Get a lawyer," advised Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has criticized the industry association's use of copyright subpoenas. "There's no simpler advice than that, whether you intend to fight this or not. You'll need someone to advise you."
With estimates that half of file-sharers are teenagers, all sides braced for the inevitable legal debate surrounding the financial damage to parents or grandparents.
The RIAA named as the defendant in each lawsuit the person who paid for the household Internet account. Lawyers said that in some states, such as California, parents are not explicitly liable for copyright infringement by minor children.
"That question will come up immediately, whether a minor can have the requisite knowledge to be the right defendant," said Susan Crawford, who teaches cyberlaw at Yale University's Cardozo law school. "A very young child who didn't know what they were doing would be a bad defendant for the industry. It will make them look terrible."
The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for people who admit they illegally share music, promising not to sue them in exchange for their admission and pledge to delete the songs off their computers. The offer does not apply to people who already are targets of copyright subpoenas.
"If you've already been targeted, it doesn't seem like it would be appropriate to invite amnesty in that situation; it would be an invitation to infringe until you get caught," Sherman said. "Nobody gets a free pass here."
Sherman called the amnesty offer "our version of an olive branch."
Some defense lawyers have objected to the amnesty provisions, warning that song publishers and other organizations not represented by the RIAA won't be constrained by the group's promise not to sue. They also argued that people who agree not to use file-sharing services could be surrendering future rights if Congress or the courts declare such use to be legal.
The RIAA also said it already has negotiated $3,000 settlements with fewer than 10 Internet users who learned they might be sued after the RIAA sent copyright subpoenas to their Internet providers. Sherman predicted more settlements after today, but the price to settle for anyone already named in a lawsuit will be higher.
U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer.
"Now that lawsuits are actually being filed and people realize this is for real, we would expect many more to come forward and we would welcome that," Sherman said.
The RIAA, which represents the largest labels, has sent more than 1,500 subpoenas to Internet providers nationwide; Internet users overseas haven't been targeted. The first wave of lawsuits was timed to the return to college of students to ensure the suits would be discussed widely on campus.
Sherman predicted "subsequent waves of litigation," numbers largely determined by "how many lawsuits we can manage at any one time." He said money earned from civil penalties or settlements would pay for the RIAA's anti-piracy campaign.
On the Net:
Subpoena Defense: www.subpoenadefense.org