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RIAA Halts Strategy of Suing Individual Music Downloaders

22 Dec, 2008 By: Chris Tribbey

The Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) decision Dec. 19 to abandon its years-long practice of suing individuals who illegally download and share music, was something the RIAA should have done long ago, according to Fred von Lohmann with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Many people forget that the motion picture studios subtly did the same thing, but they largely gave up that approach a year ago,” he said. “No press releases, no big stories. They just quietly abandoned the ‘sue your customers’ strategy.”

The RIAA has taken tens of thousands of individuals to court over illegal downloads in the past five years, while the studios and the Motion Picture Association of America have largely gone after Web sites and peer-to-peer (P2P) services that violate copyrights, rarely taking individuals to court. Though the recording industry has won some high-profile cases — including one $220,000 judgment against a single mother in Minnesota — it has been widely chastised by watchdog groups for fighting a war it can’t win, and attacking people who are in essence potential customers.

“The movie studios are pretty much offering their content for free [on ad-supported streaming sites]. They’re groping their way toward the future much more ambitiously than the recording industry,” von Lohmann said, pointing to collapsed release windows and day-and-date digital delivery and VOD with DVD.

First reported by the Wall Street Journal, the RIAA’s decision to stop suing individuals, and instead work with Internet Service Providers to monitor users’ file-sharing activity, was a good move, according to digital public interest group Public Knowledge.

“We are pleased that the RIAA has decided largely to drop its counter-productive strategy of suing its customers,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge. “We also have no objections to RIAA working closely with [ISPs to pass along notices to those suspected of file-sharing, although ISPs should not be put into the improper role of ‘copyright cop.’”

Marty Lafferty, CEO of the Distributed Computing Industry Association (DCIA), which works to establish standards for P2P file sharing services, praised the “end to the mass litigation campaign against consumers.”

“Neither the DCIA nor any of our member companies sanction copyright infringement, and we will continue to devote significant resources to technological solutions that address that problem,” Lafferty said in a statement. “Meanwhile, we encourage more licensing of distributed computing platforms for music delivery as the best currently available antidote.”

The RIAA’s announcement came the same day that media research firm NPD Group released statistics showing the number of CDs purchased in the third quarter of this year was down 19%, compared to the same period last year, while the number of music tracks shared on the Internet grew 23%. Legal, paid downloading rose 29%.

The RIAA is now working with ISPs, who will reportedly serve customers who engage in illegal file sharing a warning. Further violations would result in a slow-down in bandwidth availability, or possibly a shut down in service altogether.

Von Lohmann, however, was skeptical of the RIAA’s new tactic. “The end of the lawsuits is long overdue, but the apparent alternative is just as short-sighted,” he said. “The recording industry has been working with the ISPs for five years … what’s suddenly going to change?

“It’s hopelessly naïve to believe file sharing will ever be stopped. The [RIAA] should instead legitimize what’s going to happen anyway.”

In a separate move Dec. 22, social networking site MySpace agreed to stop allowing its users to post free music to their profiles using the Playlist.com music players. The RIAA and several music labels are suing the site for copyright infringement.

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