Inside the music industry's piracy battle

Sun Jun 8, 2008 5:00pm EDT
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By Susan Butler

WASHINGTON (Billboard) - Deep inside the national headquarters of the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA) is a purple room.

Tinted windows shade the faces of young men and women working behind computer screens. They are part of the team investigating the illegal sharing of music files over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, and they protect their identities carefully.

Such precautions are a reflection of the charged environment in which the music business is operating. The RIAA, the trade group for the major U.S. labels, views anti-piracy enforcement as vital to the recording industry's future.

Since 2003, labels have filed more than 28,000 lawsuits against individual file sharers. Only one suit has reached trial. Jammie Thomas, a single mother who was ordered by a federal jury in Minnesota last October to pay $222,000, is waiting for the federal court's decision on her request for a new trial.

Piracy on university campuses is a big part of the problem. In the past year, the RIAA has sent more than 6,000 "pre-litigation settlement letters" to students around the country, giving them the opportunity to avoid a potential lawsuit by settling out of court for a reduced fee. About half have settled, and the other half face formal lawsuits.

Some university administrators complain that record companies unfairly target their campus networks to find infringers. Some judges have questioned whether proof of users making music files available in a P2P network's "shared folder" is sufficient evidence of copyright infringement. Emotions have run so high that death threats targeting RIAA lawyers and executives haven't been unheard of.

Despite the RIAA's efforts, data suggest that demand for pirated content remains strong. A recent NPD Group report estimates that 19% of U.S. Internet subscribers 13 and older download free music from P2P services, barely less than the 20% reported when the RIAA began its user litigation campaign in 2003.

While it is all but impossible to gauge how much additional illegal downloading its enforcement actions may have deterred, the RIAA remains determined to clamp down on Internet piracy. Billboard visited the trade group's Washington, D.C., offices for a demonstration of how it tracks down file sharers.   Continued...