Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. How else to describe the plight of 71-year-old Texas resident Durwood Pickle? The plucky grandpa found himself in a great big pickle when he got slapped with one of the charter "illegal filesharing" lawsuits filed last September by the Recording Industry Association of America.
"Some of my grandkids got in there," he was quoted as saying on NPR. "They come in and get on the computer. How do I get out of this? Dadgum it, got to get a lawyer on this."
He was screwed alright, dadgum it. So was Briana Lahara, who sounds suspiciously like an exotic dancer but is actually a twelve-year-old honor student who lives in subsidized housing in New York. In a hugely publicized debacle, she got dadgum busted too, and her mother settled with the RIAA for $2,000 to avoid a gnarly trial.
The RIAA couldn't have picked two more sympathy-inducing people to go after if it had tried, and the anti-RIAA factions in the media had a field day. But almost a half-year later, what did it all accomplish?
Both of these Americans were part of the RIAA's 261 lawsuits filed against "copyright thieves" last year in an attempt to scare peer-to-peer swappers away forever. Those who got busted (261 out of the estimated 60 million people who fileshare) were looking at financial ruin. Legally, they could be charged anywhere between $750 and $150,000 per song: a mighty scary proposition, especially if you were someone who had a cache of hundreds (or thousands) of songs.
But the RIAA knows that most people will settle, and none of these lawsuits have yet gone to trial. The organization's head counsel and president, Cary Sherman, estimates that the typical settlement amount has been $3,000.
So, the threat of big loss looms over filesharers, but the RIAA essentially admits to singling out the few to deter the rest of us. They also want to divert filesharers into using legal music downloading sites like iTunes, the new Napster, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Dell, Real, and Microsoft. According to Sherman, who held a press conference a week ago, the real measure of success lies with traffic at these "legit" services. "By that measure," he said, "we are just delighted by what we have seen in the uptake of legitimate online services."
Yet the lawsuits are making people very uncomfortable. Something in this rings of the Shirley Jackson short story we all read in high school, "The Lottery," where the townsfolk all gather 'round once a year to stone to death one of their neighbors. You might not get struck by lightning or be the victim of a terrorist attack, but you may get busted by the RIAA for letting people download your Paul Oakenfold collection.
Eric Olsen, the owner and operator of the popular Web site Blogcritics.org, likens the RIAA's latest legal moves to extortion.
"With that kind of a threat hanging over a private citizen," he says, referring to the possible $150K-per-song fine, "and the thought of the simple legal defense of having to defend oneself through the process, in essence it's coercion to pay what amounts to a fine, with no due process."
And here we go again. On January 21, the RIAA announced its second round of lawsuits, this time against 532 people who don't even know they're busted yet. It could be you -- you won't know until a judge okays your subpoena, a complicated matter that involves the RIAA identifying its "John Does" by their ISP numbers, then taking that information to a court to find out their names.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, "Oh, boo-hoo, people stole music and now they're getting busted. Cry me a river." And you have a point. In fact, at the press conference surrounding this last round of lawsuits, the president of the Songwriters Guild of America, Rick Carnes, made these stirring comments about the financial losses faced by songwriters in the wake of a file free-for-all:
"Computers don't steal songs; people steal songs," he said. "Maybe when the songwriters are all gone, you won't even miss them, unless someday you actually are homeless, and need someone like a Woody Guthrie to tell the world about injustice ... or, God forbid, your country is attacked, and you need a song to help bring your nation together and heal your wounds."
But Carnes might be interested to know that not one penny of the money recovered in Pickle-like settlements has gone back to the artists that were downloaded. Nope, it all went back to the RIAA for what their spokesperson described as further "antipiracy efforts."
Hmm ... wonder what Woody Guthrie would have to say about that.
The real question is whether the RIAA's latest efforts are effective. It depends on whom you ask. The press has eagerly seized on the decline of filesharing, which has reportedly dropped anywhere between 20 and 50 percent. That's entirely believable, though the people surveyed for most of the statistics were adults, not teenagers. "They didn't include anyone under eighteen," Olsen says. "How absurd is that? Surely, at a minimum, those people are a third of the filesharers, probably even half."
Thus, despite the party line, downloading is still hot 'n' heavy -- most John Does Planet Clair talked to are still making their own jukeboxes. "I haven't heard of anyone being sued for just downloading files," said John Doe #1, a 27-year-old sales rep. "I have five hundred songs in my hard drive, and zero available for anyone to download."
"I am downloading," added John Doe #2, a 31-year-old graphic designer, "although I am pretty sketched about it, and certainly don't want to get sued by those fuckers."
But #2 has this down to a science. He uses Hotline, a hypothetically closed network. "Since Hotline servers are generally closed systems requiring logins and passwords," he says, "it is far less sketchy than Napster, Gnutella, et al., and using that does not worry me in the least."
Furthermore, anyone can still download from foreign filesharers, which will prove tougher to nail legally than Napster or Kazaa. In short, this stuff isn't going to go away, despite what you might've heard on the news. "There's no way they are going to put a stop to it," Olsen concludes about the RIAA's lawsuit strategy. "This is just harassment, a misuse of the legal system; a shotgun approach. They don't really care about who they hit."
Future Durwood Pickles: You have been warned.