WHITE PLAINS, New York – It was Easter Sunday, and Patricia Santangelo was in church with her kids when she says the music recording industry peeked into her computer and decided to take her to court.
Santangelo says she has never downloaded a single song on her computer, but the industry didn't see it that way.
The woman from Wappingers Falls, about 80 miles north of New York City, is among the more than 16,000 people who have been sued for allegedly pirating music through file-sharing computer networks.
"I assumed that when I explained to them who I was and that I wasn't a computer downloader, it would just go away," she said in an interview. "I didn't really understand what it all meant. But they just kept insisting on a financial settlement."
The industry is demanding thousands of dollars to settle the case, but Santangelo, unlike the 3,700 defendants who have already settled, says she will stand on principle and fight the lawsuit.
"It's a moral issue," she said. "I can't sign something that says I agree to stop doing something I never did."
If the downloading was done on her computer, Santangelo thinks it may have been the work of a young friend of her children.
Santangelo, 43, has been described by a federal judge as "an Internet-illiterate parent, who does not know Kazaa from kazoo, and who can barely retrieve her email."
Kazaa is a peer-to-peer software program used to share files.
The drain on her resources to fight the case — she's divorced, has five children aged 7 to 19 and works as a property manager for a real estate company — forced her this month to drop her lawyer and begin representing herself.
"There was just no way I could continue on with a lawyer," she said. "I'm out $24,000 and we haven't even gone to trial."
So on Thursday she was all alone at the defense table before federal Magistrate Judge Mark Fox in White Plains, looking a little nervous and replying simply, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to his questions about scheduling and exchange of evidence.
She did not look like someone who would have downloaded songs like Incubus' "Nowhere Fast," Godsmack's "Whatever" and Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life," all of which were allegedly found on her computer.
Her former lawyer, Ray Beckerman, says Santangelo doesn't really need him.
"I'm sure she's going to win," he said. "I don't see how they could win. They have no case. They have no evidence she ever did anything. They don't know how the files appeared on her computer or who put them there."
Jenni Engebretsen, spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America, the coalition of music companies that is pressing the lawsuits, would not comment specifically on Santangelo's case.
"Our goal with all these anti-piracy efforts is to protect the ability of the recording industry to invest in new bands and new music and give legal online services a chance to flourish," she said. "The illegal downloading of music is just as wrong as shoplifting from a local record store."
The David-and-Goliath nature of the case has attracted considerable attention in the Internet community. To those who defend the right to such "peer-to-peer" networks and criticize the RIAA's tactics, Santangelo is a hero.
Jon Newton, founder of an Internet site critical of the record companies, said by e-mail that with all the settlements, "The impression created is all these people have been successfully prosecuted for some as-yet undefined 'crime'. And yet not one of them has so far appeared in a court or before a judge. ... She's doing it alone. She's a courageous woman to be taking on the multibillion-dollar music industry."
Santangelo said her biggest issue is with Kazaa for allowing children to download music without parental permission.
"I should have gotten at least an e-mail or something notifying me," she said.
Telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment from the Australia-based owner of Kazaa, Sharman Networks Ltd., were not returned.
Because some cases are settled just before a trial and because it would be months before Santangelo's got that far, it's impossible to predict whether she might be the first to go to trial over music downloading.
But she vows that she's in the fight to stay.
"People say to me, 'You're crazy. Why don't you just settle?' I could probably get out of the whole thing if I paid maybe $3,500 and signed their little document. But I won't do that."
Her travail started when the record companies used an investigator to go online and search for copyrighted recordings being made available by individuals. The investigator allegedly found hundreds on her computer on April 11, 2004.
Months later, there was a phone call from the industry's "settlement center," demanding about $7,500 "to keep me from being named in a lawsuit," Santangelo said.
Santangelo and Beckerman were confident they would win a motion to dismiss the case, but Judge Colleen McMahon ruled that the record companies had enough of a case to go forward. She said the issue was whether "an Internet-illiterate parent" could be held liable for her children's downloads.
Santangelo says she's learned a lot about computers in the past year.
"I read some of these blogs and they say, 'Why didn't this woman have a firewall?'" she said. "Well, I have a firewall now. I have a ton of security now."