June 26, 2003, marked the day the Recording Industry Association of America began collecting evidence and preparing lawsuits against individual file-sharers. At the time, the effort was the main spearhead in a multifaceted campaign to stem the unchecked growth of file-sharing.
Anticipation of the lawsuits had been growing for over a year, as early attempts to hold P2P developers responsible for copyright infringement proved difficult. In 2003, Presiding Justice Steven Wilson disagreed with the entertainment industry’s assertion that StreamCast Networks and Grokster were responsible for the unlawful activities of their users.
"Defendants distribute and support software, the users of which can and do choose to employ it for both lawful and unlawful ends," Wilson wrote in his opinion. "Grokster and StreamCast are not significantly different from companies that sell home video recorders or copy machines, both of which can be and are used to infringe copyrights."
The entertainment industry’s appeal in 2004 faired little better. The panel of three judges confirmed the lower court’s ruling, and maintained neither party qualified for secondary copyright infringement.
"This appeal presents the question of whether distributors of peer-to-peer file-sharing computer networking software may be held contributory or vicariously liable for copyright infringements by users. Under the circumstances presented by this case, we conclude that the defendants are not liable for contributory and vicarious copyright infringement and affirm the district court’s partial grant of summary judgment."
The entertainment industry, represented by the RIAA and MPAA, immediately appealed this decision to the United States Supreme Court. Unlike the two previous rulings, the entertainment industry finally received the decision they so desperately sought. In a unanimous 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower courts, stating StreamCast Networks and Grokster could be sued for violating federal copyright laws.
“We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties,” Justice David H. Souter wrote in court’s decision.
While all three rulings varied in their success for the entertainment industry, the common denominator maintained that users are responsible for their own actions. This gave the RIAA and MPAA the ammunition they needed to continue pursuing individuals who distribute copious amounts of files online. Yet three years and over 18,000 lawsuits later, the strategy of launching a continuous barrage of monthly lawsuits aimed at approximately 750 individuals is being retooled.
The problem with the current barrage of lawsuits is equivalent to being hit with a fire hose of information. With so many individuals being hit at once, it becomes counterproductive to the entertainment industry’s effort to educate the file-sharing populace. The growing perception over the years has developed into complacency. Who are these people? Do they live near me? Why should I care if some nameless, faceless individual on the other side of the continent was sued for sharing 5,000 songs on the FastTrack network?
This lack of focus is apparent when alleged file-sharing pirates come forward to the media and plead ignorance in the face of a $3,000.00 settlement. Often times such individuals are completely befuddled, unaware their actions were unlawful.
Realizing this, the RIAA has shifted their strategy away from once a month, en masse lawsuits. Replacing the old strategy is one that still focuses on individuals; however the number is spread out over the course of a month rather than an immediate date. In addition, the weekly lawsuits focus on specific geographic locations, working with local media outlets to catch the attention of the surrounding populace.
“We are currently filing lawsuits throughout the month in batches, in order to maximize efficiencies and expand the geographic reach,” an RIAA spokesperson told Slyck.com. “We are always looking for ways to make the program as effective, smart and targeted as possible. We need to be flexible in how we manage these litigations in order to handle them efficiently. The lawsuits are and will continue to be an essential part of a larger effort to encourage fans to enjoy music legally.”
This new strategy is already taking shape. Quite noticeably, there has been a lack of RIAA press releases articulating the usual monthly, en masse round of lawsuits. Conversely, there’s been an increase of local and specific news articles describing potential lawsuits against alleged P2P pirates. For example, the Palm Beach Post
recently reported that local Boynton Beach resident Dorothy O'Connell (and several others) was sued for sharing files online. It’s a similar story in Evansville, Indiana, where the Evansville Courier Gazette
published an article this week describing two local residents currently facing potential RIAA lawsuits.
The aim of the new RIAA strategy is to give a name and face to a previously ho-hum lawsuit campaign. It’s designed to summon a reaction that invokes a sense of relevance and vulnerability, not one that’s perceived as something happening in a far off land. There’s little question the previous RIAA strategy is far from the worldly success hoped for. Three years and 18,000 lawsuits later, more people are populating P2P and file-sharing networks than ever before. This new campaign will certainly bring more localized attention to the issues surrounding the great file-sharing debate, however which direction the local populace focuses this attention will only be realized with time.