Courthouse Rock: Last Week the Recording Industry Sued 261 Unlucky Music Lovers, Who, like Millions More, Had Used Internet File-Sharing Services to Download Tunes. Will the Radical Strategy Work? and Is It Fair?

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Levy

Joyce Mullen's new car has a CD player, so this year the 53-year-old administrative assistant for Lucent began purchasing discs, most recently a Cher collection. But her relationship with the music industry changed last Monday, when the phone rang in the house she shares with her family on a leafy street in Methuen, Mass. It was a reporter asking how it felt to be sued by the giant corporations who sell the CDs she'd been buying. Her husband--who never touches the family computer--was among the 261 defendants in suits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). What made the family liable for millions of dollars in penalties were the 1,080 or so songs downloaded by their 21-year-old daughter Meghan and shared with the world via an Internet file-sharing service called iMesh. Joyce Mullen won't be buying music for quite a while. "If you're going to lose your house," she says, "how are you going to buy a CD?"

The file-sharing boom, in which 60 million Americans have grabbed free music on the Net, involves epochal clashes. Status quo business models versus risky progress. Copyright hawks against public-domain geeks. What the Mullens can't figure out, like many of their fellow defendants, is how they wound up on the front lines. Why would an industry sue its customers? And why them?

"We're doing it to get our message out," says RIAA president Cary Sherman. And though most song swappers still don't buy Sherman's claim that importing a free song is morally the same as shoplifting a disc from a record store (legally, downloading is a no-no), he's certainly got their attention. Though the topic of downloading pales in comparison with the usual admonitory dinner conversations--smoking, drinking, drugs, sex and schoolyard shootings--suddenly parents are grilling Jason and Tiffany about MP3s and P2P. All to the delight of music-industry strategists.

Will the effort actually turn the tide against file sharing? After the RIAA announced its intention to sue consumers, activity indeed dipped this summer. And last week a NEWSWEEK Poll found that 54 percent of respondents say the crackdown will make them less likely to continue. But don't count out song swapping just yet. The summer downturn may well have been due to, well, summer, when campuses are empty and even computer nerds sometimes find reasons to go outdoors. After Labor Day "there was a dramatic uptick," says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, a company that tracks file sharing. The numbers were as high as ever, and there was no significant drop-off after news of the lawsuits last week.

Even if the RIAA makes good on its promise to sue "thousands" more people, they can't sue everybody. "Every time I log on to Kazaa it says there are a million users online with me. The odds are in my favor," says one 19-year-old student at the University of South Carolina. If infringers don't want to play the odds, they can virtually guarantee the RIAA can't finger them: simply turn off the "sharing" part of file-sharing software, and you can still download--but the copyright cops can't find you. If Americans do this, the file sharers overseas will pick up the slack. "Even if every last Kazaa user in the U.S. turned off file sharing, there wouldn't be a perceptible difference," says Garland.

In any case, virtually all the file-sharing services are now considering a revamp of their system that would flummox industry gumshoes. …