A California company is taking a new approach to deter and collect damages for unlawful file-sharing. The company watches bit torrent sites for illegal downloads. It sends emails to the violators, offering to settle the claim for $10 per violation. If they choose, violators can pay the claim and get a release online.
The company identifies the violators by IP address, with help from the violators' internet service provider. Although it's unclear how many settlements have occurred, the process is much simpler than making a written demand. It's also considerably less onerous to violators, who face much greater damages in copyright law. Just ask this music lover, who's on the hook for $675,000 worth of illegal downloads.
Do you love music and don't go anywhere without your iPod or MP3 player? Where do you get all the songs loaded on it? Be careful. Remember, in life very few things are "free."
Is It Sharing or Stealing?
For music-lover Jammie Thomas-Rasset, legal troubles began in 2007. That's when the Minnesota single mother of four was sued by the music industry. In October of that year, a jury found her guilty of copyright infringement because she illegally shared 24 songs on the internet. She was slapped with a $222,000 fine - that's $9,250 per song.
She fought the verdict and got a new trial. A jury said she had to pay $1.9 million, but a judge lowered it to $54,000. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) fought back. It got a new trial to determine only the amount of damages - not whether Thomas-Rasset violated copyright laws.
First, but Not the Last
The case was the first time the US recording industry faced an accused "music pirate" in a jury trial. In the past, people paid settlements when accused of illegally uploading or downloading music. But the Thomas-Rasset case shows how seriously the music industry, and the RIAA, takes piracy.
In fact, a very similar case, a federal appeals court upheld a $675,000 judgment for the RIAA against a graduate student in September 2011. The case began in 2007, too.
What's RIAA's Motivation?
Why is the RIAA so aggressive? The music industry has seen its album sales plummet in recent years. At the same time, illegal music sharing has spread - copying a friend's CD, buying a bootleg disc from a street vendor or logging onto a file-sharing service to upload and download songs. You may may think it's a "victimless crime" where no one gets hurt.
But the RIAA says music theft is no different than shoplifting a CD from a store. For each musician's name connected to a song, dozens of other people are involved in writing, recording, mixing and distributing the music. All of them suffer when a song is stolen. By the RIAA's estimates, $300 million a year is lost to street piracy (selling counterfeit CDs). And more is lost to online piracy.
Keep It Legal
US copyright law makes unauthorized duplication, distribution and performance of copyrighted works illegal. So, if you don't have permission to share music (even if you're giving it to someone for free), or if you get music from someone who isn't authorized to sell or share it, then you're committing a crime.
The penalties are steep. You face criminal charges, or a civil suit, like Thomas-Rasset. Criminal penalties for first-time offenders can be as much as 5 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Civil penalties start at about $750 per song. These penalties apply even if you don't profit from illegal song sharing. And remember, ignorance of the law isn't a defense.
What can you do to stay safe and avoid running afoul of the law?
- Just say no. If you haven't illegally shared music in the past, don't start now. And if you share music, stop! There are plenty of legal web sites where you can download songs for a small fee - usually about a dollar per song. Or buy CDs from a store
- Talk to your children. Teach your kids about the legal consequences of music theft. Tell them how much money others have had to pay in fines after they've been caught illegally sharing music. And monitor how they're spending their money. If your child has an iPod loaded with thousands of songs, but never seems to buy music, it should send up a red flag. MusicUnited.org helps parents educate their children about music theft
- Examine your family computer. Does it contain a file folder called Shared Music or Public Music? It may mean someone's using it to illegally upload or download songs. Also, look for peer-to-peer software (or P2P) such as Aimster, Bearshare, Gnutella, Grokster, Kazaa, LimeWire, Morpheus and WinMX. If you see it, remove it from your computer. Keep in mind, too, parents may be liable for their child's music theft
- Don't forget about your college student. The RIAA goes after university students who share music illegally. If you have a child in college, make sure she understands what is and isn't legal when it comes to sharing music
- Talk to a lawyer. If you or a family member is contacted by the RIAA or a music company and accused of illegally sharing music, contact a lawyer who specializes in copyright or intellectual property law. You may be given the chance to settle the case out of court. A lawyer can help you decide the best course to take
The music doesn't have to stop. Enjoy your favorites as much as you like. Just make sure you pay piper.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Is it illegal to copy a CD I bought? What about CDs I borrow from the library?
- Can I get into legal trouble if a friend illegally downloads music to my player without me knowing about it?
- I heard it's not illegal to download music to my computer so long as I don't keep it for more than 24 hours. Is that true?