Big Music vs Individual Music Lovers

The music industry is reportedly preparing to open a new front in its war on piracy.

This time, the enemy isn't commercial, for-profit websites offering free music downloads with a ton of paid advertising. It's individual music fans eager to share their stashes of tunes.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is preparing to file copyright-infringement lawsuits against those it determines are the most egregious file-sharers on the Internet, according to reports in early July. The purported move against individuals follows successful copyright litigation against several commercial ventures, including the neutering of Napster, the granddaddy of them all. If carried out, an attack on music fans would put the music industry in the curious position of intentionally alienating its own customers.

While commercial piracy is clearly illegal, it’s not clear if that is true for music shared free of charge. It's also not clear that all of the five big media conglomerates that dominate the music industry support an attack on private individuals. At a trade association meeting held late this past spring, music industry executives tentatively agreed to a strategy of pursuing the largest file-sharers. Warner Music Group was said to offer only lukewarm support for the effort, because it would create a conflict with its parent company, AOL Time Warner, operator of America Online, the world's most popular Internet service.

The idea appeals to executives who are enduring the second year of the longest sales drought the recorded music industry has yet experienced, but it is fraught with legal and logistical problems. The industry is aware of major file-sharers, because their frequently accessed databases appear as so-called "supernodes" in peer-to-peer networks. Finding out exactly who are the individuals behind these databases may be difficult or impossible, because their identities are known only by their Internet service providers, who may not be required to divulge information. Many computers generate new IP addresses each time they are turned on—which means they can't be tracked on a day-to-day basis—or have multiple users, which would make identifying a single guilty party extremely difficult.

The industry is also toying with technological tactics in its battle to regain control of distribution of its products. One possibility involves generating "dummy files" of popular songs, although it's uncertain whether that would be any more problematic for downloaders than the frequent broken links and partial files they now encounter. Another widely discussed anti-piracy measure involves probing users' computers for illicit files and planting viruses. Some of these tactics are of questionable legality; Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from Los Angeles, plans to introduce legislation to protect copyright owners from the legal backlash that might result from damaging private databases or operating systems.

The threat of lawsuits may be enough to discourage some file-sharers. Few, if any, music fans with large music databases would be able to afford to mount legal defenses against the multi-billion-dollar industry, even if noncommercial file-sharing were ultimately determined to be perfectly legal.