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RIAA to offer file sharers a deal
September 06, 2003

Benny Evangelista, Chronicle Staff Writer Saturday, September 6, 2003


The Recording Industry Association of America hasn't started suing online file sharers yet, but it raised eyebrows earlier this week when word leaked out that it is on the verge of coming out with a plan to offer amnesty to music fans who fear they will be hauled into court.

The RIAA's plan, which could be unveiled as soon as next week, would allow file sharers to avoid civil prosecution if they promise to stop file sharing and delete music files they have already downloaded, according to published reports that were confirmed Friday by an industry source.

The amnesty program would require the file sharer to file a notarized form with the RIAA, the Washington, D.C., organization that represents the world's biggest record companies.

The industry group does not plan to offer amnesty to about 1,600 people who are the subjects of subpoenas the RIAA has already filed with dozens of Internet service providers.

The amnesty offer comes as worldwide CD sales are in a three-year tailspin. The recording industry largely attributes the weak sales to the popularity of programs like Kazaa that are used by an estimated 60 million people in the United States to swap music and video files on the Internet without paying.

An RIAA spokeswoman said the group has no comment on the reports, first published Thursday by the entertainment industry magazine Billboard.

The RIAA announced in late June that it was gathering evidence to file copyright infringement suits against hundreds of people who are offering a "substantial" number of music files stored on their computers for others to download.

Copyright laws allow the industry to seek damages from $750 to $150,000 for each illegally stored song.

The RIAA has said the suits would be filed late last month or early this month. The amnesty plan could be unveiled to coincide with the filing of the lawsuits.

Other details of the plan remain unclear, such as what steps the RIAA would take to monitor and enforce the amnesty agreements. However, a knowledgeable source who wished to remain anonymous said one published report that the RIAA would also be seeking photo IDs was incorrect.

Josh Bernoff, an entertainment industry analyst with Forrester Research Inc. , said he believes the RIAA was really using the amnesty offer to reinforce its threat to file sharers "that if you keep doing this, we will get you."

Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco digital rights advocacy group, said the "so-called amnesty program" raises several legal and privacy questions and may not protect consumers from all lawsuits.

"The public response to this offer is going to be a pretty clear measure of how much fear the recording industry has injected into the American people," he said.

The RIAA does not represent all copyright owners, such as song publishers, and von Lohmann questioned whether a signed amnesty affidavit could be used as evidence for a non-RIAA lawsuit.

"They're asking them to come forward and confess their guilt" before being accused of a crime, he said. "You're admitting to being a lawbreaker, and it's not at all clear to me you're getting anything in return."

Von Lohmann suggested the RIAA could instead generate billions of dollars in new revenue with an amnesty program that would charge file sharers $5 per month to keep using programs like Kazaa without fear of prosecution.

"They could have turned tens of millions of Americans into customers, but instead they want to turn tens of millions of Americans into criminals," he said.

E-mail Benny Evangelista at bevangelista@sfchronicle.com.


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