File-sharing dragnet scoops up Bay City grandma
Sunday, February 20, 2005
By Crystal Harmon
You've got to pay the piper, the saying goes, if you want to call the tune.
And if you want to share the tunes online, you might get hit with a mighty big bill.
The recording industry has targeted hundreds of people around the country with lawsuits, alleging they infringed on record companies' copyrights when giving and taking music online.
A Bay City family got served with notice of such a lawsuit last month at their home on King Street.
'I almost got a heart attack when I was going over those papers,' said Margaret Szeliga, an automotive design engineer and single mother. 'What happened? How did this happen? I was in shock when I saw those court papers.'
The person named as defendant in the lawsuit is Szeliga's mother - a 70-year-old Polish immigrant who speaks little English and has never even owned a computer, let alone downloaded the songs 'Armed to the Teeth' by Epidemic or 'The Backend of Forever' by Coheed and Cambria.
Those are just two of the 671 songs listed in the lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court, accusing Szeliga's mother of violating copyright laws.
Szeliga says her 17-year-old daughter, like millions of other teens, took part in online music swapping while the two lived with her mom before moving into another apartment in the same home. Since her mother paid the Internet bill, she's listed as the one doing the swapping.
Szeliga phoned the industry lawyers and quickly hashed out a tentative settlement, she said, avoiding the expense of hiring a lawyer and the hassle of court proceedings and a threat of even greater cost.
But it's not cheap. She has 90 days to pay the Recording Industry Association of America $3,750.
She'll raid her 17-year-old daughter's college fund and senior class trip fund and take out a personal loan to pay the unexpected bill. She said her daughter is devastated, feeling guilty, depressed and angry for being penalized for an activity that's common practice.
'I wish we would have had some kind of warning,' Szeliga said. 'I just cannot believe our luck. What are the odds? Some of her friends have over 4,000 songs. On a raffle, we never win anything. On a situation like this, we are the unlucky ones.'
The recording industry says 2.6 billion songs are illegally shared via the Internet each month. Through software that allows computer users to trade music at the touch of the button, an estimated 60 million Americans are building massive music libraries for free.
In the Szeliga family's case, though, the 'free' collection of 671 songs will end up costing them about five bucks per tune - tunes which, as part of the settlement, must be destroyed.
Swapping or stealing?
The Recording Industry Association of America sued 717 people around the country last month for copyright infringement. It's the third major round, with the first coming in 2003. Most of the lawsuits end in settlements like that reached by Szeliga.
The RIAA claims that the drastic action is necessary to keep the music industry healthy.
Illegal file-sharing robs musicians of their livelihoods and threatens the very future of the music industry, industry advocates say.
They point to a 26 percent decline in sales of recorded music over the past five years - paired with a surge in the sales of blank compact discs folks use to copy music.
The latest technology that makes it so easy to swap, rather than buy, recorded music; however, also makes it easier to track down offenders.
To prepare for the lawsuits, record industry representatives joined online music-sharing networks and scanned other members' directories - which are an open book to fellow members.
The directories list files members are offering to distribute. The record industry investigators downloaded some of the music, copied the directory, and noted the date and time.
The RIAA - which represents most major record labels - then served subpoenas on Internet Service Providers demanding records to identify the Internet user believed to be violating copyright laws.
While downloading even a single copyrighted song is illegal, the industry focused on folks who were making substantial collections of tunes available through the network, according to RIAA press releases and their informational Web site, whatsthedownload.com.
Unable to sue the millions of apparent violators at once, the RIAA targeted people around the country, making sure that each of the federal court districts were represented.
Their hope is to generate enough publicity that folks, fearing a lawsuit or even criminal charges, will turn to legal online music providers, such as iTunes, which charges 99 cents per song.
Legitimate music services grow in popularity with more and more music being purchased every day,' said Steven Marks, general counsel for RIAA, in a press release trumpeting the latest batch of lawsuits.
'But the great music created by hard-working writers, artists and technicians continues to be stolen at an alarming rate through illegitimate peer-to-peer services on the Internet.
We must continue to let individuals know that they bear responsibility for illegally stealing the work of those who make the music. And we need to educate them about the widespread availability of legal music sites on the Web.
With the number of legal online music sites growing - more than 200 are now in operation, industry leaders hope consumers will take the safe and legal route to building their music libraries rather and accept that the free ride is over.
The law is clear and the message to those who are distributing substantial quantities of music online should be equally clear - this activity is illegal, you are not anonymous when you do it, and engaging in it can have real consequences, said RIAA president Cary Sherman.
But the message is slow to get through.
A Survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project recently revealed that 58 percent of people who actively download music say they don't care about copyrights.
Online file-sharing leaves tracks
How the conflicts over copyrights will be resolved in the digital age remains unknown.
'It's anybody's guess right now,' said Jerry Henderson, professor of broadcast and cinematic arts at Central Michigan University. 'The RIAA is trying to stop the illegal fire sharing. They're trying to capture money they, and the performers, should be getting.
'The interesting question is going to be whether ignorance of the law will be a defense.'
Copying and distributing copyrighted music has always been illegal, even in the olden days of vinyl records. But it was a cumbersome task, with sometimes less-than-stellar results.
'What really made the difference was the digitizing,' Henderson said. 'An illegal copy is almost as good as the master CD in terms of quality. That's why it's a whole new ballgame.'
Also making a difference is the fact that file-swapping online leaves digital fingerprints of the crime. No one knew if you recorded your 'Frampton Comes Alive' album on a cassette to give to your buddy.
As technology evolves, the ability to control dissemination of entertainment becomes more challenging. Radio stations - such as the student-run one at CMU - now broadcast in streaming digital formats. Listeners with the right software could easily capture those songs and make copies, Henderson said.
Some music fans are striking back at the record companies. Electronic Frontier Foundation is a group of lawyers, scholars and music lovers that has come to the legal defense of some defendants in the RIAA lawsuits.
EFF says record companies violate consumers' privacy in their quest to ferret out copyright violators. Rather than sue individual music collectors, the organization suggests that record companies embrace file-sharing and find a way to collect payments from users, other than filing lawsuits.
The EFF (www.eff.org) wants people to interested in 'fighting the copyright regime' to join their organization and help change laws so that peer-to-peer sharing of music files is no longer illegal.
Henderson expects that, within a decade, music - and other forms of entertainment - will become almost like a utility. Consumers will have access to a global collection of nearly every song, movie and TV show ever made on tap for viewing or listening on demand. A monthly bill will show up, and a portion of that bill will cover royalties.
In the meantime, though, the record companies are fighting to get folks to buy the cow and stop getting the milk for free.
High court to weigh in
College students were among those targeted in the latest round of suits - 68 students at 23 universities, including Michigan State, Wayne State and the University of Michigan, were sued for illegal file sharing.
Henderson said some universities, including CMU, are attempting to educate students about the illegality of free music-swapping and 'convince them that file-sharing is not cool.'
'The university has cut off access to students computers for excessive file sharing,' he said.
While music is the most commonly swapped type of entertainment, copyrighted movies are also available online - illegally - with a click of the mouse.
The U.S. Supreme Court will take up a case next month that, while it focuses on movie-swapping, may set precedent for those who collect music for free in cyberspace.
The court will weigh in on the case of MGM Studios vs. Grokster. The movie-maker is suing the company that produces software that makes sharing movies online so simple.
At issue is weather to software-maker is responsible for the copyright infringement their software facilitates. An estimated 600,000 movies are downloaded daily, according to MGM.
It's up to consumers, most of whom wouldn't even consider shop-lifting from a record or movie store,- to decide whether it's worth the risk to take songs and movies online in violation of copyright laws.
To be completely safe, Henderson suggests folks avoid it.
'If it's free, it's probably illegal,' he said.
Szeliga wishes she'd have understood more about the potential consequences of copyright infringement a year ago.
She'd heard rumblings about Kazaa, the services her daughter used to build up a library of music ranging from Willie Nelson to Incubus.
The conventional wisdom was that if you kept your music library under 1,000 songs, you'd be safe from any kind of legal action, Szeliga said, 'but I told her it could be trouble.'
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