The targets of the first lawsuits against music fans who share songs on the Internet include an elderly man in Texas who rarely uses his computer, a Yale University (search) professor and an unemployed woman in New York who says she didn't know she was breaking the law.
Each faces potentially devastating civil penalties or settlements that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
The Recording Industry Association of America (search) launched the next stage of its aggressive anti-piracy campaign Monday, filing 261 federal lawsuits across the country. The action was aimed at what the RIAA described as "major offenders" illegally distributing on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each, but lawyers warned they may ultimately file thousands of similar cases.
Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, said his teenage grandchildren downloaded music onto his computer during their visits to his home. He said his grown son had explained the situation in an earlier e-mail to the recording industry association.
"I didn't do it, and I don't feel like I'm responsible," Pickle said in an interview. "It's been stopped now, I guarantee you that."
Pickle, who was unaware he was being sued until contacted by The Associated Press, said he rarely uses the computer in his home.
"I'm not a computer-type person," Pickle said. "They come in and get on the computer. How do I get out of this?"
Yale University professor Timothy Davis said he will stop sharing music files immediately. He downloaded about 500 songs from others on the Internet before his Internet provider notified him about the music industry's interest in his activities.
"I've been pretending it was going to go away," said Davis, who teaches photography.
Another defendant, Lisa Schamis of New York, said her Internet provider warned her two months ago that record industry lawyers had asked for her name and address, but she said she had no idea she might be sued. She acknowledged downloading "lots" of music over file-sharing networks.
"This is ridiculous," said Schamis, 26. "I didn't understand it was illegal."
She said the music industry shouldn't have the right to sue.
"It's wrong on their part," she said.
An estimated 60 million Americans participate in file-sharing networks, using software that makes it simple for computer users to locate and retrieve for free virtually any song by any artist within moments. Internet users broadly acknowledge music-trading is illegal, but the practice has flourished in recent years since copyright statutes are among the most popularly flouted laws online.
"Nobody likes playing the heavy," said RIAA President Cary Sherman, who compared illegal music downloads to shoplifting. "There comes a time when you have to stand up and take appropriate action."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., has already promised congressional hearings into how the music industry has identified and tracked the Internet users it's suing.
"They have a legitimate interest that needs to be protected, but are they protecting it in a way that's too broad and overreaching?" Coleman said. "I don't want to make criminals out of 60 million kids, even though kids and grandkids are doing things they shouldn't be doing."
The RIAA did not identify for reporters which Internet users it was suing or where they live. Lawsuits were filed in federal courthouses in New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and elsewhere.
"Get a lawyer," advised Fred von Lohmann, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (search). "There's no simpler advice than that, whether you intend to fight this or not. You'll need someone to advise you."
With estimates that half of file-sharers are teenagers, all sides braced for the inevitable legal debate surrounding the financial damage to parents or grandparents. The RIAA named as the defendant in each lawsuit the person who paid for the household Internet account.
"That question will come up immediately, whether a minor can have the requisite knowledge to be the right defendant," said Susan Crawford, who teaches law at Yeshiva University's Cardozo law school in New York City. "A very young child who didn't know what they were doing would be a bad defendant for the industry."
The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for people who admit they illegally share music, promising not to sue them in exchange for their admission and pledge to delete the songs off their computers. The offer does not apply to people who already are targets of legal action.
Sherman called the amnesty offer "our version of an olive branch."
Some defense lawyers have objected to the amnesty provisions, warning that song publishers and other organizations not represented by the RIAA won't be constrained by the group's promise not to sue.
U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer.