by Rima Thompson
and Kenneth Todd Ruiz
In a world where downloading music is as easy as running for Governor of California, the Recording Industry Association of America has turned up the heat on hundreds of file swappers, while tempting the rest with an offer of “amnesty.”
Following the Sept. 8 filing of lawsuits against 261 individuals for illegally sharing copyrighted material, the RIAA has rolled out their “Clean Slate” program they say grants amnesty to users who voluntarily identify themselves.
“The piracy level continues unabated,” RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy said. “The lawsuits are a way to let others know that there are consequences to their actions if they continue to engage in illegal activities.”
Musicunited.org, an RIAA Web site promoting the program, describes it as “amnesty from copyright enforcement to individuals who have, or who believe that they may have, illegally downloaded or distributed copyrighted sound recordings on peer-to-peer networks.”
To satisfy the requirements of the program, users must delete all the pirated files from their computer and send them a signed and notarized affidavit available from the Web site. Completing the affidavit requires the user’s name, address, telephone number, e-mail address and the name of their Internet service provider.
“I think that [downloading] is too accessible for them to try and put a stop to it. I wouldn’t sign the form,” said sophomore Nareyda Iniquez.
People who have already been sued or are currently under investigation are not eligible under “clean slate.”
RIAA spokeswoman Amanda Collins said signing the form gives a “promise that the individual will not be sued by the RIAA,” and did not want to comment any further on the specifics.
Consumer advocacy have questioned the wisdom of taking the RIAA up on its offer.
“We call it a ‘sham-nesty,'” said Gwen Hinze, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates digital civil liberties. “The RIAA is a trade organization that represents the five largest music industry organizations. Signing the amnesty wouldn’t protect anyone from a lawsuit brought by one of the labels or music publishers.”
According to Hinze, although the RIAA may not pursue litigation, nothing is stopping the actual companies they represent from suing users.
Hinze and the EFF also said that they are troubled by the exclusion of all individuals currently “under investigation.” Hinze said that because the RIAA keeps tight wraps on who it is investigating, people unaware of this might submit a signed confession that could be used against them in court.
“By going through this process you are in fact admitting guilt, and it may be used against you in a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution,” Hinze said.
Hinze recommended that anyone seriously considering the amnesty offer consult with an attorney beforehand.
Starting with the successful shutdown of the Napster file sharing service, the RIAA has been taking increasingly aggressive steps in putting an end to file sharing.
“[The] RIAA feels like it has no other choice and sees this as one of the only ways to educate on the illegality and harm of file sharing,” Lamy said.
Since 1999, the RIAA claims that album sales have plummeted by 30 percent, and that they lose an estimated $4.2 billion each year because of pirated music.
Opponents, however, say that the decrease in sales is because of high prices and a lack of quality music.
“I don’t download music because I don’t want to get sued,” said James Beare, a junior in the history department. “I feel that downloading is not wrong because the music companies are ripping the public off on the prices for CDs. If the price of CDs were dropped dramatically this entire issue of downloading would be non-existent.”
While the RIAA contends that sharing has hurt sales, other studies claim the opposite is true. According to a report last year from Jupiter Research, services such as Napster and Kazaa boosted album sales.
“It is safe to say that active usage of online music content is one of the best predictors of increased consumer purchasing,” author Aram Sinnreich wrote in the report. “Music sellers should devote their limited resources to online marketing and distribution rather than eradicating the phantom threat of file sharing if they truly wish to staunch the blood flow and turn the music market around.”
Boycott-RIAA.com, a grassroots campaign launched in 2000 contends that sales started slipping because of consumer enmity over the RIAA’s heavy-handed tactics.
Lamy disagreed and said that there is no discontent with music but that the problem lies in people not paying for it.
“Hundreds of people work on songwriting, developing the artist, designing, marketing the music, distribution, including making the CD players,” he said. “The price covers just a small portion of the expense.”
According to Lamy, the RIAA is targeting people who are distributing massive amounts of music files to millions of anonymous strangers across the Internet. Each illegally downloaded file has a fine anywhere from $750 to $150,000.
Already unpopular with consumers for what are seen as heavy-handed tactics, the RIAA took some heat of their own last week when one of the defendants turned out to be 12-year-old girl living in public housing with her single mom.
The first case to be settled, the mother paid a $2,000 fine for her daughter’s Kazaa habit.
Some consumers are viewing the amnesty program as worse than an offer they can just refuse.
One California resident filed suit against the RIAA last Friday in Marin County for deceptive business practices.
For more information on the amnesty program or to download the affidavit, visit musicunited.org. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has instructions on how to configure file-sharing software to avoid becoming a target of the RIAA as well as a database to search if you have come under their investigation at www.eff.org.
Downloading and sharing copyrighted material is unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future, with or without the threat of being sued.
“It’s not scaring me at all,” Janette Harvey, a ULV sophomore said. “They can’t possibly get a hold of all the millions of people downloading music.”