The RIAA has now sued or threatened to sue more than 28,000 people in the United States, in most cases extracting settlements of several thousand dollars from college students, housewives, and families with precocious preteens who downloaded music from Grokster, Kazaa, LimeWire, or BearShare. In many cases the infractions alleged are minimal (e.g., 5 songs) but the damages sought are not. The litigation strategy is intended to create the public perception that even the smallest infraction will be prosecuted and even the most naive teenager will be punished. The lawsuits are clearly not brought to win damages — suing unemployed college students has never been a winner on the Mensa list of ways to make a buck. Obviously, the real intent behind the lawsuits is to strike fear into the hearts of everyone contemplating file-sharing, to instill the thought in the back of your mind that you could be next. What the RIAA wants is for you to pause before downloading, remember the litigation horror stories, and delete LimeWire from your desktop. If you remember that RIAA lawyers are so aggressive they will not hesitate to sue your deceased grandmother, perhaps that will deter you from your illicit quest to download “I Wanna Know What Love Is” for free.
Though the RIAA’s litigation strategy apparently has a certain surface appeal to music industry egos, in real life the RIAA’s rigid litigation model has not yielded meaningful results. Apart from alienating the general public and creating an enormous amount of superfluous litigation for the courts’ already overcrowded dockets, the results have been abysmal. The RIAA has failed to discourage file-sharing, and created an underground file-sharing community that — like Ninja assassins — quietly creep up out of nowhere and download billions of songs on ever-changing platforms. Every time a file-sharing company gets big enough to be noticed and sued by the RIAA, it is replaced by yet another start-up providing exactly the same service at a new location, with better cloaking technology. While the industry can sue LimeWire, Pirate Bay, Napster, and all and sundry for all they’re worth, eventually a compromise is going to have to be made. The “we’ll sue you into the ground” business model is not working, is not good business, and is quite possibly not good law — just yesterday the 16 year old cheerleader who got sued for downloading 37 songs and was ordered to pay $27,750 filed a Petition for Certiorari with the Supreme Court asking the court to overturn the decision against her on the (frankly quite believable) grounds that she didn’t realize that file-sharing was against the law.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.