This Day In History: September 8

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“Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation,” said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on September 8, 2003, “but when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action.” The product in question was music in the form of digital mp3 files being transmitted among users of Internet file-sharing applications in violation of copyright laws. And while the RIAA’s idea of “appropriate action” in response to digital music piracy had previously meant efforts to shut down the operators of Internet file-sharing systems, the industry group announced a new and controversial strategy on September 8, 2003: the filing of lawsuits against individual users of those systems, some of them children.

“We’ve been telling people for a long time that file-sharing copyrighted music is illegal, that you are not anonymous when you do it, and that engaging in it can have real consequences,” said Mr. Sherman in announcing the RIAA’s new enforcement strategy. By September 2003, having undertaken a massive anti-piracy public-education campaign in the months since Napster was shut down by court order in 2001, and while still pursuing a case against the Dutch operators of a “peer-to-peer” (P2P) file-sharing system called Grokster, the RIAA had decided to back up its public threats with direct legal action against individuals.

The RIAA’s announcement of their first lawsuits against individuals was accompanied by statements of support from music-industry players large and small, including legendary Motown songwriter Lamond Dozier, whose plea to end digital piracy asked those who engaged in illegal file-sharing to “step into the shoes of [music professionals] who have families and children.” But in fact, some of the 261 defendants sued in the first round of RIAA lawsuits were families with children—in many cases, minor children whose parents had no idea about their kids’ music-downloading habits.

Federal law allowed the RIAA to seek damages as high as $150,000 per illegally shared song per defendant, but in practice the RIAA offered defendants the option of establishing a “Clean Slate” by destroying all of their illegally acquired files and paying a settlement of approximately $3 per illegal song. A little more than three weeks after announcing its new legal strategy on this day in 2003, the RIAA announced that 52 of the 261 individuals named in the initial round of lawsuits had reached such cash settlements. Within the next 20 months, the RIAA sued a further 11,195 individuals, reaching financial settlements with 2,484.