WASHINGTON — The music industry's largest trade group filed 261 copyright lawsuits across the country Monday 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.
Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, said his teenage grandchildren downloaded music onto his computer during their visits to his home. He said his grown 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," Pickle said. "It's been stopped now, I guarantee you that."
Pickle, who was unaware he was being sued until contacted by The Associated Press, said he rarely uses the computer in 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."
Yale University professor Timothy Davis, who also was among those named in the lawsuits, said he will stop sharing music files immediately. He said he downloaded about 500 songs from others on the Internet before his Internet provider notified him about the music industry's interest in his activities.
"I've been pretending it was going to go away," said Davis, who teaches photography.
He added: "I'm not some kind of college student who's downloaded thousands and thousands of things. It isn't like I'm trying to broadcast these things anywhere."
Another defendant, Lisa Schamis of New York, said her Internet provider warned her two months ago that record industry lawyers had asked for her name and address, but she said she had no idea she might be sued. She acknowledged downloading "lots" of music over file-sharing networks.
"This is ridiculous," said Schamis, 26. "People like me who did this, I didn't understand it was illegal."
"I can understand why the music industry is upset about this, but the fact that we had access to this as the public, I don't think gives them the right to sue us," said Schamis, who added she is unemployed and would be unable to pay any large fine or settlement. "It's wrong on their part."
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."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., has already promised congressional hearings into how the music industry has identified and tracked the Internet users it's suing.
"They have a legitimate interest that needs to be protected, but are they protecting it in a way that's too broad and overreaching?" Coleman said. "I don't want to make criminals out of 60 million kids, even though kids and grandkids are doing things they shouldn't be doing."
The RIAA did not identify for reporters which Internet users it was suing or where they live. Federal courthouses in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and elsewhere reported receiving some lawsuits.
"Get a lawyer," advised Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "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.
"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."
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 legal action.
"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." He 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.
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.
U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer.
Contributing: Alex Veiga