BY WARREN COHEN
April 17, 2003
The record labels put Napster out of business. Now they may be coming after you. On March 12th , the Recording Industry Association of America sent letters to approximately 300 U.S. companies to notify them of certain employees who are using office computers to share MP3s on Internet trading sites such as Kazaa and Morpheus. The message? File sharing can cost you not just your job but steep fines.
Under the law, copyright owners such as record labels can collect damages of anywhere from $750 to $150,000 per song for unlicensed swapping. The industry says offenders could also serve up to five years of jail time but the RIAA is hoping corporations themselves will act to prevent file sharing before any individual users are prosecuted. The companies cited received an RIAA booklet instructing them that downloading copyrighted files “is not ‘sharing’…It is theft.”
Lawmakers are getting into the act, too. More than a dozen members of Congress have urged Attorney General John Ashcroft to prosecute those who distribute entertainment files on peer-to-peer services. At a March 13th hearing, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) suggested that prison time might be the only way to stop people from downloading. “I think it'd be a good idea to go out and actually bust a couple of these college kids," he said.
Don’t think that it can’t happen: In January, the labels won a case against Verizon, an Internet service provider, to get the name and addresses of an individuals who used their Verizon account to trade hundreds of pirated MP3s. Verizon has appealed the decision, but it is unlikely to win, given the RIAA’s successful track record in court. High-volume traders may run the greatest risk of being prosecuted. “The more egregious infringers would be the first to hear from us,” says RIAA President Cary Sherman.
Despite threatened legal action, file trading is even more popular now than it was during Napster's heyday. Twenty-eight percent of all Americans have downloaded a music or MP3 file, according to research firm Ipsos-Reid. And revamps of file-trading systems such as Freenet can potentially hide users’ unique Internet addresses, which would create a whole new degree of difficulty for law enforcement. “If you want to control what people are doing on the Internet, you have to either break the Internet or create a system where everyone is monitored all the time," says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties organization “Giving up this privacy doesn't strike me as a reasonable solution to the copyright problem." The RIAA says the pressure will remain until swapping is replaced by paying. Says Sherman, “We need to get piracy under sufficient control so legitimate businesses can succeed.”
One of the record labels’ toughest challenges is convincing music fans that file sharing is illegal. Yet courts have consistenly upheld the rights of copyright holder, and the 1997 No Electronic Theft Act, signed into law by President Clinton, made trading copyrighted material online a felong - punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines as high as $250,000. “What the end user is doing is direct infringement," says RIAA President Cary Sherman. "There are no complicated issues here.” But some legal experts say enforcing the law could be difficult. "It's not as cut and drried as the recording industry would like to make it seem," says Jessica Litman, a professor of law at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Put a consumer in front of a jury, and it may not be so easy to prove."