WASHINGTON – Rapper LL Cool J (search) joined entertainment executives Tuesday in defending the music industry's lawsuits against hundreds of Internet users who illegally distribute music online.
"My question is, if a contractor builds a building, should people be allowed to move into the building for free?" the rapper, dressed in a black suit with an earring glistening in his right lobe, asked senators. "That's how I feel if I record a song or make a movie, and it zooms around the world for free."
Another rapper, Chuck D (search), founder of Public Enemy (search), testified at the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing that people ought to be able to distribute the songs they want to hear on peer-to-peer Internet services, known as P2P.
"P2P to me means power to the people," said Chuck D. "I trust the consumer more than I trust the people at the helm of these [record] companies."
"LL's a staunch American," Chuck D added in a brief interview. "He's my man and all, man, but when you solely have an American state of mind, you're increasingly becoming a smaller part of the world."
The music industry's trade group, the Recording Industry Association of America (search), has filed 261 lawsuits against people it accuses of illegally distributing music online. The RIAA blames lagging CD sales on the downloading of music.
The subcommittee chairman, Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, called the hearing to look into whether the recording industry's tactics were too heavy-handed.
"As a former prosecutor, I am troubled by a strategy that uses the law to threaten people into submission," said Coleman, a former roadie for the '60s rock group Ten Years After (search). Coleman referred to the rappers as "Mr. Cool J" and "Mr. D."
The RIAA's chairman and CEO, Mitch Bainwol, announced Tuesday that the group will send notification letters to encourage settlements before it files lawsuits.
On Monday, the RIAA said it had settled 52 of the 261 lawsuits. Defense lawyers familiar with some cases said payments ranged generally from $2,500 to $7,500, with at least one settlement for as much as $10,000.
One woman who settled her case told the subcommittee she was horrified when she learned that the RIAA had sued her and that federal law set penalties at $750 to $150,000 per song.
"I thought my life was over, and that I'd have to file for bankruptcy," said Lorraine Sullivan, a 28-year-old student at Hunter College in New York.
The RIAA agreed to settle her case for $2,500; Sullivan raised $600 from a web site she created, http://www.suedbytheriaa.com .
In testimony before the senators, Bainwol defended the lawsuits.
"The decision to move forward with legal action was a last resort," he said. "The market is just falling apart when you're competing against free. This was the last thing we had in our quiver."
Bainwol said the lawsuits could be avoided if peer-to-peer networks filtered copyrighted material from their sites.
"File sharing networks like Kazaa (search) deliberately induce people to break the law," Bainwol said.
Alan Morris, executive vice president of Sherman Networks Limited, the owner of the Kazaa web site, said his company does not condone copyright infringement.
"But the issue here does not seem to be about copyright," Morris said. "It's about control of the Internet."
But Morris was evasive when Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked him about pulling the plug on users who downloaded copyrighted material.
Morris said the company lacked the capability to do that. Levin asked what the company would do if it had the capability.
"That's a hypothetical," Morris answered.
In a Gallup Poll released Tuesday, 83 percent of teenagers polled said it was morally acceptable to download music from the Internet for free.