RIAA shifts gears on music piracy, says it won't file more suits

Trade group instead plans to work with ISPs to try to stop alleged illegal downloaders

In a surprise about-face, the Recording Industry Association of America said today that it will no longer pursue its controversial legal strategy of filing large numbers of lawsuits against individuals for alleged music piracy.

But the trade group isn't throwing in the towel on its antipiracy campaign.

In a brief document explaining its decision, the RIAA said it now plans to work more closely with ISPs to identify alleged copyright infringers and try to persuade them to stop. Under the so-called graduated response program, the RIAA would notify participating ISPs when it discovers their customers engaging in what it claims are illegal downloading activities.

Depending on the specific agreements between the RIAA and individual ISPs, service providers would either forward copyright infringement notices from the RIAA to subscribers or notify customers about the notices and ask them to cease and desist. The program allows for a series of escalating sanctions against repeat offenders by ISPs, such as throttling back their network speeds and eventually terminating their service.

The document released by the RIAA said that the trade group is working with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and several leading but unnamed ISPs on the new effort. It added that Cuomo has already asked several ISPs to cooperate with the RIAA.

The RIAA said that record companies would still retain the right to sue egregious copyright infringers. But the strategy of sending out pre-litigation letters asking alleged copyright violators to settle or face legal action will stop, the group said. Also, the RIAA will no longer file "John Doe" lawsuits in which it lists an IP address and charges the person to whom that address is assigned.

The trade group doesn't plan to drop the thousands of lawsuits that it already has filed against suspected music pirates.

But Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who has defended many people targeted by the RIAA, said he thinks it's highly unlikely that the existing lawsuits will be pursued with any great vigor in light of the latest development.

"I think [RIAA officials] will realize that there's going to be no point in throwing money into those cases anymore," Beckerman said. "The only people who are going to come out of it making any money will be their lawyers."

It isn't clear what exactly may have triggered the decision to stop filing new lawsuits, Beckerman said. But he claimed that it likely has nothing to do with the RIAA's stated new approach of collaborating with ISPs on antipiracy efforts. The trade group already has been working closely with the ISP community, according to Beckerman. "This is just an attempt to save face," he said.

Joel Tenenbaum, a graduate student at Boston University who is fighting an RIAA lawsuit, voiced satisfaction that other people apparently won't have to go through what he has over the past few years. But he wondered why the RIAA still intends to pursue the existing lawsuits. "Now that they've given up the deterrent value of the suit," Tenenbaum said, "are they just after their legal fees?"

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