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To heck with your sympathy. The record industry doesn't want it anymore.

That's an easy conclusion to draw from Monday's announcement that the Recording Industry Association of America has filed 261 separate lawsuits against people it accuses of illegally sharing music online.

The RIAA -- which includes

AOL Time Warner's

(AOL)

Warner Music Group,

Vivendi Universal's

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Universal Music Group,

Sony's

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Sony Music Entertainment,

EMI Group

and

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Bertelsmann's

BMG Entertainment -- has filed civil suits alleging copyright violations in numerous jurisdictions across the country, under a law that provides for damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 for each separate work that's been copied or distributed.

By filing these lawsuits against people who have shared files over peer-to-peer networks such as KaZaA, the record industry promises to generate countless feature stories about music-loving, cheapskate twenty-somethings threatened with judgments of hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to pay for their casual view of copyright law.

The effect of the lawsuits -- in all likelihood, they'll both confirm the mean-spirited image of the music business and scare straight file-sharers not caught up in the current round of litigation -- must also be viewed in light of the sorry state of the music business. In the U.S., the RIAA notes, annual revenue fell 14% from 1999 to 2002. The RIAA blames online piracy, but other factors are at work, including offline piracy, or illegally duplicated discs.

Jersey Barriers

Yet, as much as the record industry didn't want to start suing individual customers -- "Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," RIAA President Cary Sherman said on a Monday conference call -- the RIAA is now playing the role of the heavy with as much gusto as John Malkovich.

How else to explain Sherman's response to a reporter's question Monday about a hypothetical situation in which a person named in a lawsuit says it wasn't he who was sharing all those songs on his family's hard drive, but, say, his 14-year-old son?

In that case, responded Sherman, if the parent "would prefer the lawsuit would be amended to name the kid, we could do that."

Playing the heavy, indeed.

While continuing a parallel legal effort to shut down the companies, starting with Napster, whose software has enabled peer-to-peer sharing, the record industry has found itself unable to convince people that unauthorized file-sharing is wrong. Consumers remain unpersuaded so far that file-sharing is something other than a victimless crime.

But why? Perhaps too many "Behind the Music" episodes on

VH-1

offering stories of recording artists spat out by the music industry. Or perhaps, as songwriter Hugh Prestwood said on the call, the media have done a "rotten" job of explaining how file-sharing has inflicted harm on individuals involved in the music industry.

Whatever the reason, the music industry, despite trotting out quotes from supporting players in the business, is now pursuing a strategy that's less carrot-and-stick than stick-or-no-stick.

The stick, of course, is the lawsuits. The absence-of-stick approach is the RIAA's willingness to settle with people whose identity it has learned from subpoenas, or whom it has already sued.

The RIAA indicates it has already reached settlements with potential copyright infringers whose identities it has learned via subpoena, at a cost of about $3,000 to each potential violator. The RIAA also said Monday it would offer amnesty to those who weren't already on its radar screen, as long as people promised to erase offending files from their hard drives and promised not to share music illegally again.