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Music industry aims law at downloaders
WASHINGTON -- Move over, college kids. Grandparents and roommates may be the first ones to pay for downloading songs on the Internet.
The music industry's earliest subpoenas, issued as part of a high-stakes campaign to cripple online piracy by suing some of music's biggest fans, are aimed at a surprisingly eclectic group: a grandfather, an unsuspecting dad and an apartment roommate.
"Within five minutes, if I can get hold of her, this will come to an end," said Gordon Pate of Dana Point, Calif., when told by a reporter that a federal subpoena had been issued over his daughter's music downloads.
The legal papers required an Internet provider, Comcast Cable Communications Inc., to hand over Pate's name and address.
Pate, 67, confirmed that his 23-year-old daughter, Leah Pate, had installed file-sharing software using an account cited on the subpoena. But he said his daughter would stop immediately and the family did not know using such software could result in a stern warning, expensive lawsuit or even criminal prosecution.
"There's no way either us or our daughter would do anything we knew to be illegal," Pate said, promising to remove the software quickly. "I don't think anybody knew this was illegal, just a way to get some music."
The president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the largest music labels, said lawyers will pursue downloaders regardless of personal circumstances because it would deter other Internet users.
"The idea really is not to be selective, to let people know that if they're offering a substantial number of files for others to copy, they are at risk," Cary Sherman said. "It doesn't matter who they are."
Over the coming months this may be the Internet's equivalent of shock and awe, the stunning discovery by music fans across America that copyright lawyers can pierce the presumed anonymity of file-sharing, even for computer users hiding behind nicknames such as "hottdude0587" or "bluemonkey13."
In Charleston, W.Va., college student Amy Boggs said she quickly deleted more than 1,400 music files on her computer after a reporter told her she was the target of a subpoena. Boggs said she sometimes downloaded dozens of songs on any given day, including ones by Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, Incubus and Busta Rhymes.
Since Boggs used her roommates' Internet account, the roommates' name and address were being turned over to music industry lawyers.
"This scares me so bad I never want to download anything again," said Boggs, who turned 22 on Thursday. "I never thought this would happen. There are millions of people out there doing this."
In homes where parents or grandparents may not closely monitor the family's Internet use, the news could be especially surprising. A defendant's liability can depend on their age and whether anyone else knew about the music downloads.
Bob Barnes, a 50-year-old grandfather in Fresno, Calif., and the target of a subpoena, acknowledged sharing "several hundred" music files. He said he used the Internet to download hard-to-find recordings of European artists because he was unsatisfied with modern American artists and grew tired of buying CDs without the chance to listen to them first.
"If you don't like it, you can't take it back," said Barnes, who runs a small video production company with his wife from their three-bedroom home. "You have all your little blonde, blue-eyed clones. There's no originality."
Citing the numeric Internet addresses of music downloaders, the RIAA has said it can only track users by comparing those addresses against subscriber records held by Internet providers. But the Associated Press used those addresses and other details culled from subpoenas and was able to locate some Internet users who are among the music industry's earliest targets.
Pate was wavering whether to call the RIAA to negotiate a settlement. "Should I call a lawyer?" he wondered.
The RIAA's president was not sure what advice to offer because he never imagined downloaders could be identified until Internet providers turned over subscriber records, as the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires them to do.
"It's not a scenario we had truthfully envisaged," Sherman said. "If somebody wants to settle before a lawsuit is filed it would be fine to call us, but it's really not clear how we're going to perceive this."
The association has issued at least 911 subpoenas so far, according to court records. Lawyers have said they expect to file at least several hundred lawsuits within eight weeks, and copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song.
The AP tracked targets of subpoenas to neighborhoods in Boston; Chicago; St. Louis; San Francisco; New York and Ann Arbor, Mich.
Outside legal experts urged the music industry to carefully select targets for its earliest lawsuits. Several lawyers said they were doubtful the RIAA ultimately will choose to sue computer users like the Pate family.
"If they end up picking on individuals who are perceived to be grandmothers or junior high students who have only downloaded in isolated incidents, they run the risk of a backlash," said Christopher Caldwell, a lawyer in Los Angeles who previously worked with major studios and the Motion Picture Association of America.
The recording industry said Pate's daughter was offering songs by Billy Idol, Missy Elliot, Duran Duran, Def Leppard and other artists. Pate said that he never personally downloaded music and that he so zealously respects copyrights that he does not videotape movies off cable television channels.
Barnes, who used the Napster service until the music industry shut it down, said he rarely uses file-sharing software these days unless his grandson visits. The RIAA found songs on his computer by Marvin Gaye, Savage Garden, Berlin, the Eagles, Dire Straits and others.
Barnes expressed some concern about a possible lawsuit but was confident that "more likely they will probably come out with a cease and desist order" to stop him sharing music files on the Internet.
"I think they're trying to scare people," Barnes said.