Music Industry Will Stop Mass Lawsuits Against Students Over Illegal Trading

December 19, 2008

In a major shift in strategy, the Recording Industry Association of America will cease suing groups of students for illegally sharing copyrighted music on college networks.

For more than five years, the music industry has periodically filed batch lawsuits against computer users who it said were downloading music files illegally. Out of the thousands of people the group has sued, hundreds were on college campuses, and the RIAA went out of its way to announce that students were in its cross hairs. With each batch of lawsuits, the group issued a press release naming the campuses on which the downloading was alleged to have taken place.

Now that aggressive approach has changed. “We are discontinuing our broad-based litigation program against individuals,” said Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the music-industry group, in an interview today.

The group has begun a new strategy that it hopes will be more effective — working with commercial Internet-service providers to set ground rules in which the providers agree to take actions against customers who are found to trade music files illegally and repeatedly. In what the RIAA calls a “graduated-response program,” Internet-service providers, known as ISP’s, will take steps against users — first warnings and later suspensions of accounts — when copyright holders notify the service providers of instances of copyright infringement on their networks.

“This is replacing one form of deterrence with another form of deterrence,” said Ms. Duckworth. The new program deals with “commercial ISP’s, not schools,” she said, adding that many colleges already have similar graduated-response systems in place. The RIAA will continue to send notices of copyright infringement to colleges when it detects such violations, but because it is ending the lawsuit program, it will not send any new “pre-litigation letters” to colleges, she said. Previously filed cases will go forward, however.

The recording industry’s shift away from lawsuits was first reported in today’s Wall Street Journal.

College officials, who have long criticized the RIAA’s lawsuit-based strategy, praised the group’s announcement.

“My first reaction is, ‘Fantastic,’” said Tracy Mitrano, director of information-technology policy at Cornell University. “I want to congratulate the RIAA for having the flexibility and courage to change course.”

“There are other ways to educate people than to arbitrarily hit a few of them over the head so hard that they had to drop out of school,” said Ms. Mitrano, asserting that some students who paid thousands of dollars in settlements to the RIAA could no longer afford to attend college. “It was just bad practice.”

Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs at Educause, an education-technology group, said it was significant that the music industry was changing course.

“The RIAA is apparently recognizing that their sue-the-customer, scorched-earth business model has not worked,” he said. “They’re looking for something else, and that’s good.”

Ms. Duckworth defended the group’s past lawsuits, arguing that they have been effective at raising awareness that trading music without paying for it is illegal. “We entered the decision to bring lawsuits knowing that we weren’t going to win any popularity contests,” she said.

She added that even though the mass lawsuits are coming to an end, the group “reserves the right to sue egregious offenders.”

“We’re not out of the anti-piracy business,” she said. —Jeffrey R. Young