By Steven Kreytak
Saturday, November 1, 2003
Nicole Feller said she never got the word.
She didn't hear that the recording industry in June was beginning to gather information about people who use computer networks such as KaZaA to download and upload music.
And she didn't hear in September that an industry trade group sued 261 Internet music swappers nationwide for violating copyright laws.
Now Feller, a 20-year-old student at Texas State University-San Marcos, has received the Recording Industry Association of America's message directly. She is one of five people who were sued by the RIAA Thursday in U.S. District Court in Austin. All were accused of violating federal copyright laws by using their computers and the Internet.
"Oh my God. What are we supposed to do?" Feller said when she learned of the lawsuit from a reporter on Friday. "I didn't think it was breaking the law."
The local lawsuits were among 80 filed by the RIAA in the second round of the industry's legal assault on the free exchange of copyrighted songs on the Internet, a practice it claims costs the industry billions annually in lost music sales.
The suits, the first of their kind filed in Austin, targeted not only college students but at least one professional, a 30-year-old from Cedar Park.
The RIAA, which represents industry giants such as Capitol Records Inc. and Sony Music Entertainment Inc., has promised thousands of lawsuits against individuals as it shifts from its past strategy of targeting music downloading Web sites such as Napster.
The campaign is working, said RIAA officials, who report that traffic on p2p (peer to peer) Web sites is down and the popularity of legal alternatives that sell songs for around 99 cents is growing.
But the lawsuits have also earned the recording industry plenty of criticism as well. The trade group sued a 12-year-old honor student who lives in a New York City housing project, a story that received international media attention and outrage. The Dallas Morning News reported that the industry also sued a 71-year-old grandfather from Richardson.
"I was kind of shocked at their bringing suit against individual file sharers; I never thought it was going to come to this," said David Sokolow, a senior lecturer at the UT School of Law and an expert in entertainment law. "You are talking about these huge multinational corporations . . . going after what most people would say are nobodies."
Feller wants to know why she was targeted when "so many people do it. It's the easiest thing."
"It seems harmless to me if you are only downloading the music," and not selling it, Feller said. "They just need to run my credit and realize that they're stupid; they're not going to get anything from me."
What people who download music may not know is that file-sharing is a two-way street. Any music you download is placed in a public file on your computer that other users may upload from.
A spokesman for the RIAA would not comment on why specific defendants were chosen but said the group is targeting only the biggest music sharers -- defendants in the suits have uploaded an average of 1,000 copyrighted songs.
Copying on that scale is "generally going to be a little hard to defend," said Tony Reese, a UT law professor who specializes in intellectual property law.
Instead of actual damages, a court could award statutory damages of between $750 and $30,000 for each work illegally shared, he said. The top of the range goes up to $150,000 per work if it was "willful," and the bottom goes down to $200 if "you can prove that you infringed innocently," he said.
None of the cases have gone to trial and 32 have settled, the RIAA reports. A spokesman would not disclose details, but the Associated Press reported that the suit against the 12-year-old in New York was dropped after her mother agreed to pay $2,000.
According to the Austin lawsuits, all of the five defendants used Internet file-sharing software from KaZaA to make numerous copyrighted songs available to others.
One defendant, Albritha Randel of Austin, who goes by the screen name "supadupa@KaZaA," made more than 2,000 files available to other users, according to documents filed with the lawsuits. It is unclear how many of those files are copyrighted.
Randel could not be reached. Neither could another defendant, Pressy Olivares, 36.
After publicly announcing their plan in June, investigators for the recording industry jumped on file-sharing Web sites, such as KaZaA, Gnutella and Grokster, and looked for the screen names of high-volume file sharers.
They matched those users to Internet Protocol addresses and then sought the users' ISPs under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
They collected information on 1,500 alleged file sharers by subpoenaing the ISPs and, without warning, filed the suits in September. The ones filed this week, however, were preceded by a letter from RIAA lawyers.
The letters offered a way for the RIAA's targets to avoid a lawsuit, and the RIAA said that 124 of 204 people who received the letters contacted the group to discuss a financial settlement. The rest were sued.
Chris Schricker of Cedar Park, one of the defendants, said he couldn't respond because the letter came to his home while he was in Toronto for three weeks on business.
Schricker, 30, said he travels often in his job as a training manager and downloads music to consolidate "good songs" on CDs he burns from his computer.
"It has helped me find CDs that I then have gone and bought. . . . It's not like I can't afford the CDs," he said.