Music Industry Tries Fear as a Tactic to Stop Online Piracy

Times Staff Writer

Unable to sue file-sharing networks into submission, the music industry is stepping up its campaign to instill fear and frustration among the people who use them to copy songs for free.

The multifaceted effort tries to paint the global networks as seedy realms rife with unseemly and dangerous material -- places where computer viruses, kiddie porn and legal woes lurk amid the temptations of free tunes.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America on Tuesday launched the latest element of the campaign, sending intimidating electronic warnings to users of the Kazaa and Grokster file-sharing networks.

The notes, which declare that unauthorized file-sharers “risk legal penalties,” are sent via the two networks’ instant message systems to anyone offering certain songs for others to copy. They aim to show users with fake names such as “bigfishmouth” and “calebsgirl” that they can be tracked as easily as a surveillance camera records shoplifters.

The not-so-subtle threat is that those who continue flouting the law will be hauled into court. Indeed, some in the music industry say it’s time to start suing heavy users of the networks en masse.


As one high-ranking record executive put it, if parents got subpoenas or high school kids confronted the prospect of being viewed as pirates by college admissions personnel, “that begins to affect behavior.”

The instant messages are just one of many efforts the entertainment industry has launched in the last few months to make file-sharing networks seem risky and unappealing to users and, in many cases, their parents. But the combination of electronic guerrilla tactics, threats and collaborative crackdowns faces long odds, given that tens of millions of consumers routinely use the networks to download whatever they want for free.

RIAA President Cary Sherman said the latest tactic had been in the works for months but gained urgency after a judge ruled Friday that Grokster’s technology didn’t violate copyright law.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson held that although network users committed piracy when they made unauthorized copies, the networks themselves weren’t liable.

The major record companies and music publishers have been suing the companies that distribute file-sharing software since 1999, and they’ve won some important legal victories. But they haven’t stopped the proliferation of file-sharing networks, the increase in their popularity or the prolonged slide in CD sales that they blame on Internet piracy.

“Everyone knew that this was a long-term problem, that litigation is not a business strategy, that we never intended to rely on litigation as a substitute for a business strategy,” Sherman said.

Instead, the companies planned to use lawsuits, enforcement efforts and education “to get consumers to try and migrate to legitimate services.”

Those services were extremely limited at first, but their technology and song catalogs have improved rapidly over the last year.

Demonstrating that progress, a slick new downloadable music system from Apple Computer Inc. sold more than 200,000 tracks in its first day, record industry sources said.

To bolster those fledgling ventures, the music industry is attacking the free file-sharing networks outside the courtroom on three fronts:

* Piercing the veil of anonymity. The new instant-message campaign targets Kazaa and Grokster users who offer any one of several hundred popular songs for copying. The message they’ll receive automatically -- just once per day, Sherman said -- declares that downloading or offering copies of songs without permission is illegal.

The purpose is just to educate users, and the RIAA doesn’t plan to take any further action after sending 1 million to 2 million instant messages this week, he said.

What makes this effort different and potentially more effective than the industry’s earlier campaigns, though, is that the warnings are going directly to the people whose behavior the industry is eager to change.

The lesson to users, said Michele Anthony, an executive vice president of Sony Music Entertainment, is “there are consequences of that activity, and they are not anonymous.”

Lawsuits against individual users have been on hold while the federal courts resolve a battle between the RIAA and Verizon Communications Inc. At issue is how quickly Internet service providers must disclose the identity of alleged file-sharing pirates.

Kazaa and Grokster executives said they didn’t object to legitimate and non-intrusive efforts to stop piracy on their networks. But Wayne Rosso, Grokster’s president, said the effort was “nothing but a death rattle,” adding that Grokster users can block the RIAA’s warnings.

“Will it scare our users? I don’t know. But I can tell you one thing: Our users are a lot smarter than the RIAA is,” Rosso said. “They declared war on their own customers. All we have to do is stand back, and the customers will be heard.”

On the other hand, some users are already nervous.

“I feel paranoid that the RIAA ... will find out and come after us,” said a Los Angeles resident who asked that his name not be used. Going after college students in court “kind of works in terms of scaring me away.”

* Gumming up the works. In the weeks leading up to a major release, the record companies have been flooding the file-sharing networks with bogus copies of the songs on that record. Some of them download at an excruciatingly slow pace, making it all the more frustrating for users when they discover that they’ve been duped.

For example, files on Kazaa that appeared to be advance copies of songs from Madonna’s latest album turned out to contain a message recorded by the pop diva: “What the [expletive] do you think you’re doing?”

But such decoys lose their effectiveness, anti-piracy experts said, after a CD is released and real copies of the music appear online.

“All this stuff is meant more as a nuisance than a silver-bullet solution,” said Randy Saaf, president of MediaDefender Inc., a Los Angeles-based anti-piracy firm. “It’s the aggregate of all these tools together that’s the music industry’s best chance of reclaiming its lost market share.”

The efforts may already be working on some consumers.

Noting the shortcomings on the file-sharing networks, Kyle Brinkman, a 32-year-old music fan from Santa Monica, said, “I think the new Apple service trumps Grokster. I’d pay a dollar to avoid the hassles.”

* Playing up the risks. The record companies have tried to make consumers nervous about connecting to file-sharing systems, and not just for fear of a piracy lawsuit.

They’ve played up the computer viruses on the networks -- at least six have been distributed by Kazaa, Sherman claims -- and the danger of inadvertently sharing personal documents and information.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the House Committee on Government Reform have started trumpeting the risks of file sharing, recently holding or scheduling hearings on child pornography, privacy and security on file-sharing networks.

The committee is doing as much as it can to “get the word out to parents about the amount of pornography that’s easily available on these sites,” spokesman David Marin said, including urging talk-radio hosts to take up the issue.

The music labels also have pressed colleges, universities and corporations to police their networks to avoid legal liability and reduce telecommunications costs. Those efforts have led Penn State University and the U.S. Naval Academy, among other institutions, to take well-publicized disciplinary actions against file sharers on campus.


Times staff writer Alex Pham contributed to this report.