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Record Firms Take On Invisible Enemies

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Times Staff Writer

Stepping up their legal attack on music piracy, the major record companies Wednesday filed a new round of lawsuits against 532 Internet users who allegedly violated copyrights by sharing songs online.

But it may be weeks before the labels know exactly who they are suing.

That’s because a Washington appeals court last month outlawed a shortcut that the labels’ trade group, the Recording Industry Assn. of America, had used to identify alleged pirates, many of whom were then sued.

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The ruling, which the RIAA may appeal, forced the labels to file “John Doe” lawsuits before trying to obtain the names and addresses of alleged infringers from their Internet service providers. The record companies filed three such suits Wednesday in New York and one in Washington, naming a total of 532 “John Doe” defendants. The labels’ next step will be to seek a court order permitting them to gather the defendants’ names and addresses from their Internet providers.

The change in procedure will cost time and money, with several additional weeks of preliminary proceedings driving up legal fees. But some Internet service providers and consumer advocates welcomed the shift, saying it would add a judge’s supervision to the process and protect the public against ill-founded claims.

RIAA President Cary Sherman said the group’s overall strategy hadn’t changed: The labels are still going after people who they believe offered large numbers of copyrighted songs on file-sharing networks. And RIAA investigators are using the same techniques as before to find alleged infringers on networks like Kazaa and Morpheus, he said.

“Our campaign against illegal file sharing is not missing a beat,” Sherman said.

Some critics blasted the RIAA for filing more lawsuits instead of finding a way to make money off file sharing.

“The decision by the RIAA to rely primarily on the fear of the courts and litigation to pummel [file sharers] is unfortunate and misdirected,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). Added attorney Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “It’s certainly not going to draw lots of customers back in to buy CDs.”

Sherman said the “John Doe” suits ultimately would yield the names and addresses of the people whose Internet accounts were allegedly used for illegal file sharing, not necessarily the people doing the file sharing.

Several of the 382 named defendants already sued by the RIAA say they were targeted improperly, and that neither they nor their computers have been involved in illegal file sharing. The RIAA has dropped one case, against a 66-year-old grandmother in Massachusetts, and has reached settlements with more than half of the others sued in the initial rounds.

The computers targeted by the new suits were used to share about 860 copyrighted songs on average, compared with about 1,000 for the earlier defendants.

But while the first groups have settled their claims for about $3 per song, the record companies may seek more in the new cases -- in part because their costs have gone up, and in part because “illegal file sharers really can’t claim ignorance any longer,” Sherman said.

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