RIAA: Bigger Fish to Fry

Responding to scrutiny by federal legislators, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is backing away from the pursuit of small-scale copyright violators. After issuing more than 1000 subpoenas against alleged music pirates, the trade group announced on August 18 that it would go after only big fish in its efforts to contain the file-sharing epidemic.

The announcement was included in a response to an inquiry begun by Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs' Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Describing the RIAA's mass litigation as "excessive" earlier in August, Coleman announced plans to hold hearings on the trade association's antipiracy campaign. Coleman had expressed concern that the RIAA's net would catch grandmothers and schoolkids who had no idea that downloading was illegal. In a letter to Coleman, RIAA president and general counsel Cary Sherman gave assurance that his organization was "gathering evidence and preparing lawsuits only against individual computer users who are illegally distributing a substantial amount of copyrighted music."

The RIAA has never clearly distinguished big fish from small, but a Florida man recently convicted of piracy certainly made the cut. On August 21, Mark Shumaker of Orlando, FL was convicted of music piracy in a US district court in Alexandria, VA. The 21-year-old Shumaker was the mastermind behind a group of music pirates called the "Apocalypse Production Crew" that acquired promotional CDs from music reviewers and disc jockeys and shared them over the Internet, prosecutors asserted. Shumaker will be sentenced on November 7, and could be facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. "Prosecution and jail time are real possibilities," commented Cary Sherman.

Lawsuits and the threats of lawsuits are having the desired effect, according to a study released August 21 by market research firm NPD Group. Based on data collected continuously from more than 40,000 NPD online panelists, the amount of music file sharing began to drop in May 2003, shortly after the RIAA began threatening legal action against individual file-sharers. NPD estimates that "music files acquired, which includes songs either swapped illegally, obtained through paid downloading sites or ripped from CDs, dropped to 655 million files in June from a high of 852 million files in April," according to an August 22 report from Reuters.

The drop in file-sharing activity "appears to be more than just a natural seasonal decline," said NPD vice president Russ Crupnick. The number of households acquiring music files reached a high of 14.5 million in April 2003, fell to 12.7 million in May, and to 10.4 million in June, according to NPD estimates.

Even so, file sharing is still the "most popular method of digital music acquisition," Crupnick stated. Somewhat paradoxically, among those who continue to download, the number of music files acquired per person increased from 59 in April to 63 in June. Nielsen NetRatings also reported a decline in the overall popularity of file sharing in July, likewise attributed to legal threats by the RIAA.