Record biz busts everyday people. Will it stop piracy or just drive away more customers?

Rolling Stone

October 16, 2003

By Steve Knopper

Until the recording industry sued his wife for sharing music, Scott Bassett had no idea his children were doing anything wrong. "They're in there doing their homework and listening to all these different songs," says the Redwood City, California, auto mechanic of his kids, seventeen-year-old Scott Jr. and fifteen-year-old Brooke. "I don't know what the heck they did, but I know one thing: They're not going to be doing it anymore."

That lesson was the point of the Recording Industry Association of America's copyright-infringement lawsuits against 261 file sharers in early September. The immediate effect was a public-relations nightmare for the music industry. Brianna LaHara, 12, landed on the cover of the New York Post, saying, "My stomach is all turning."

LaHara's family, which lives in a New York housing project, settled for $2,000 -- and the RIAA declared an educational victory. It is not yet clear how many of the 260 remaining defendants will fight the suit in court or settle. "We knew that the press would find poster children as a result of this program," says RIAA president Cary Sherman. "But you have to choose between your wish to be loved and your wish to survive. The purpose is to get the message out."

The association blames online file sharing in part for a thirty-one percent drop in CD sales in teh past three years. Even if the RIAA lawsuits curb piracy, they could also have the unwanted side effect of further alienating an already disgruntled consumer base.

And on September 16th, lawyers for Verizon Communications Inc., one of the Internet service providers that has been forced to turn ove rthe names of subscribers who engage in file sharing, appeared in a federal appeals court to argue that the RIAA subpoenas are unconstitutional. Though a decision from the appeals panel is not expected until later this fall, at least one of the three presiding judges was critical of the lawsuits. "Isn't it equivalent to my leaving the door to my library open?" asked Judge John Roberts. "Somebody could come in and copy my books, but that doesn't mean I'm liable for copyright infringement."

Although the RIAA offers an amnesty program, Clean Slate, for file sharers who delete all their songs and promise not to download more, many recording artists are criticizing the RIAA's heavy-handed legal tactics. Public Enemy's Chuck D, Blondie's Deborah Harry and the Dead's Bob Weir have spoken out. "The record companies need to see people who engage in file sharing as music fans and not as criminals," writes Moby on his Web site.

Adds David Draiman, frontman for the multiplatinum metal band Disturbed, "The amount of money they'll spend in litigation alone is astronical. If they channeled that money into changing the way the record industry does business, they'd be a lot better off."

"I give the RIAA credit, because they are settling cases, they are offering amnesty and they're definitely getting their point across," says Andy Gershon, president of Moby's label, V2 Records. "But fundamentally what it will do is push people into the deeper recesses of the Internet."

Meet the Accused

Janet Bebell, Aurora, Colorado

Age: 54

Allegedly sharing: Papa Roach, Bush

She says: Her twenty-two-year-old son may have shared files uisng her Internet account. "maybe we need to look at the laws and make them make sense in today's world."

Brianna LaHara, New York

Age: 12

Allegedly sharing: Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey

She says: After admitting that she had illegally downloaded MP3s, LaHara issued an apology. "I am sorry for what I have done," she wrote. "I love music, and I don't want to hurt the artists I love."

Rachel Shuck, Strasburg, Colorado

Age: 31

Allegedly sharing: Bruce Springsteen, Pink and 1,700 others

She says: Shuck believes a renegade file sharer stole her AOL address: "I run a day-care center out of my home. I don't have time to download.

Lisa Schamis, New York

Age: 26

Allegedly sharing: Schamis won't say; court records not available.

She says: "Honestly, I didn't know the legality of it. I probably would take something like the $2,000 settlement -- in the long run, it would just be easier."

Terry Fitzgerald, Mansfield, Massachusetts

Age: 48

Allegedly sharing: Fitzgerald won't say; court records not available.

He says: Fitzgerald's teenage daughter was the downloader. "It was all done very innocently. It wasn't as illegal as the music industry was making it out to be."