Music industry suits target middle aged downloaders
Cox News Service
Monday, June 26, 2006
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Dorothy O'Connell was slapped with a lawsuit for illegally downloading music, she threw herself at the mercy of the multibillion-dollar recording industry.
"I would like you to know that I am a widow on a fixed income, supporting my daughter and my two grandchildren," the 53-year-old Boynton Beach, Fla. woman wrote. "I live paycheck to paycheck. I have trouble coming up with the money to buy my prescriptions each month. . . . I appreciate your position regarding this matter. If you need to continue litigation there is nothing I can do to stop you. I guess my future is in your hands."
The future, before a lawyer got involved, was a $6,895 fine. She also was ordered to pay the $305 it cost the recording industry to sue her.
O'Connell hardly matches the profile of the typical Internet-savvy, if slightly unscrupulous, music lover. That would be an 18- to 25-year-old white male who with a few keystrokes can get the latest recording of his favorite rap or hip-hop artist for free.
But, typical or not, O'Connell is far from unique.
In the past month, three Palm Beach County residents — all in Boca Raton — have been sued in federal court for illegally downloading music.
That brings to 10 the number of county residents who have been sued since the recording industry in 2003 began cracking down on what it likes to call "music pirates."
Louise Tropiano was one of the three snared in the latest round of lawsuits.
Initially, she said, she was surprised, but not worried. She figured the 300 songs her 15-year-old son downloaded would cost her about $1 a pop.
Her estimate was a couple of zeros short.
"For $1 a song I thought, 'OK, I'll pay them,' just to keep someone from ruining my credit," she said. "But $3,000?"
When she found out how much the recording industry, including Capitol Records, Motown Record Co. and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, wanted to settle the case, she asked a lawyer friend for help.
While only 10 Palm Beach County residents have been officially sued, there are far more who are feeling the hot breath of the recording industry breathing on their wallets.
Initially, industry spies get a person's Internet user-name by joining music lovers on one of the popular so-called peer-to-peer downloading sites, such as Kazaa.com or Limewire.com. After picking the names they are going after, they file what are called John Doe lawsuits.
Once that suit is filed, they subpoena the records of the person's Internet service provider to find out his real name. Before filing a suit against the person using his real name, they offer a settlement. If it is declined, a suit is filed.
Since September 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America has filed 18,200 suits against individuals nationwide on behalf of its member recording companies, according to the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization.
Of those, 609 are against Florida residents. About a third — 212 — have been settled and none in Florida or nationwide has gone to trial, according to industry records. The average settlement is $4,000, those who have monitored the process say.
Not surprisingly, many of the lawsuits are against parents who say they had no idea their teenage children were downloading music illegally.
Take Shirley Wright, who is facing charges that she illegally downloaded 923 songs, including hits by Trick Daddy, Missy Elliott and 50 Cent.
"It wasn't me, it was my daughter," said Wright, who works as a receptionist at a mortgage company. "I'm so illiterate with the computer, it's not funny."
What's less funny, she said, is the $750 to $30,000 the recording companies said they want from her for each of the songs her daughter downloaded from Kazaa.com.
"I don't have that kind of money," she said.
Mary Ann Meredith, a grandmother, could have found herself in similar straits. However, the industry sued her 14-year-old granddaughter.
"I told them, 'You can't sue a minor,'" the 75-year-old retired medical office manager said. "I don't know if they could or couldn't, but I called their bluff."
Ultimately, the suit was dismissed. But, Meredith said, it still makes her angry.
"What is a big company like Sony doing trying to get money from everyday working people?" she asked.
The recording industry, however, counters that illegal downloading hurts everyday working people.
They blame illegally downloaded music for a 30 percent drop in music sales from 1999 to 2004. The drop, they claim, doesn't just hurt musicians, those high-rolling fat cats who live in waterfront mansions and drive cars worth more than most people's homes.
In addition to less well-heeled artists, the drop has a ripple effect, leaving the unsung heros of the music industry — the recording engineers, CD-plant workers and even record-store clerks — out of work.
Further, they point out, the law consistently has been on their side — beginning with their well-publicized case against Napster and continuing last year when it won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The decision, handed down a year ago Tuesday, cleared the way for record labels and other copyright holders to sue firms behind file-swapping services.
Since the decision, the industry has pursued legal action against the few remaining so-called peer-to-peer services, which operate like giant party-lines, allowing millions of computer users around the world to trade music with one another.
In the wake of court decisions, many of the former peer-to-peer services, including the infamous Napster, have reconstituted themselves and now charge fees to download music that they share with the industry.
In 2005, 367 million songs were downloaded legally, a 163 percent jump over the previous year, according to figures from the recording industry's trade group. Record company revenues from digital music increased more than 150 percent, it says.
Still, some say the industry's strong-arm tactics against individuals are unwarranted.
"Millions and millions of people use peer-to-peer file-sharing," said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "These are just the unlucky few who get singled out."
Instead of fighting the technology and those who use it, Jeschke said industry leaders should figure out ways make money from it. The peer-to-peer system is a fast and efficient way of distributing files, proponents say.
From radios to video recorders, the entertainment industry has a long and rich history of fighting new technology, Jeschke said.
Those who are being sued typically are those who can least afford it, she said.
In what appears to shore up her claim, few of the Palm Beach County residents who have been sued have hired attorneys to defend them. O'Connell, the Boynton Beach woman, ultimately avoided a $6,800 fine after U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley asked an attorney from Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County to represent her in settlement talks. Ultimately, attorney Melissa Duncan said, she negotiated a settlement that she would not disclose but said was "fair and equitable" to all involved.
But, as O'Connell attempted to do, most of those accused of music piracy have either defended themselves or relied on friends for help.
Wright, for instance, asked a computer guru at her office to look at the computer her daughter was using to supposedly download hundreds of songs. He couldn't find any evidence of it, she said.
She is preparing a dossier on her daughter for the judge to review. She will mention her daughter's good grades and her volunteer work.
"I'm not trying to beat the system," she said. "I'm just so aggravated. It's the first time we've ever been accused of anything."
Jane Musgrave writes for the Palm Beach Post.