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

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He added that the RIAA's planned alternative of working with ISPs to essentially blacklist users accused of music piracy will only further remove "judicial discretion and due process" from the equation.

The move by the RIAA marks the end of a legal strategy that critics claimed was overly aggressive and unfair. Over the last few years, the trade group has filed lawsuits against thousands of individuals — about 40,000, by Beckerman's count. Typically, the lawsuits were preceded by notices of infringement demanding payments for alleged music piracy and threatening legal action if the recipients didn't pay up.

The RIAA also extensively used "John Doe" lawsuits against the owners of IP addresses linked to alleged illegal downloading, especially in cases involving college students — a demographic that the trade group targeted vigorously because of what it claims is rampant music piracy in academic environments.

But the RIAA's actions have come under increasing criticism, not only from defense lawyers and digital rights groups but also from some state officials. Last year, for example, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers filed court appeals on behalf of the University of Oregon in cases involving RIAA lawsuits.

In his filings, Myers challenged the investigative methods used by the RIAA in gathering evidence against suspected music pirates. Myers also said that the university was unable to identify 16 of the 17 John Does that the RIAA alleged had engaged in music piracy while using computers in their dorm rooms at the university. The AG's legal challenge was considered significant because it came from the state's top law enforcement official, although the university was forced to hand over the names of the students earlier this year.

The RIAA's use of a company named MediaSentry Inc. to gather evidence against individuals in copyright infringement cases also drew criticism from state and university officials who accused MediaSentry of operating as a private investigator without required state licenses.

Apart from Myers in Oregon, MediaSentry's credentials were questioned by the administration at Central Michigan University, North Carolina's Private Protective Services Board and the Massachusetts State Police, which asked the company to cease and desist its investigative activities in that state. MediaSentry's parent company, Belcamp, Md.-based SafeNet Inc., defended itself in September, rejecting contentions that it needed to obtain private investigator's licenses to continue carrying out its work on behalf of the RIAA.

The statutes that the RIAA has used to pursue its lawsuits provide for financial penalties ranging from $750 to $150,000 per song, leaving people who challenged the trade group in court at risk of being assessed crippling damages if they lost. For example, a single mother in Duluth, Minn., named Jammie Thomas was ordered by a federal jury last year to pay the RIAA $222,000 for illegally copying and distributing 24 songs.

In September, that verdict was overturned on a technicality by the trial judge, who ordered a new trial in the case. But the damages award underscored the enormous financial impact that the RIAA's lawsuits could have on defendants.

On the other hand, the judge's decision also handed the RIAA a significant setback: As part of the ruling that overturned the jury verdict, he also rejected the trade group's contention that simply making songs available for download in a shared computer folder constitutes illegal distribution. He was the third federal judge to do so — a series of rulings that RIAA critics said undermined one of the pillars of its legal strategy.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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