WASHINGTON – A woman in Milwaukee and her ex-boyfriend are under orders to pay thousands to the recording industry (search). A man in California refinanced his home to pay an $11,000 settlement. A year after it began, the industry's legal campaign against Internet music piracy is inching through the federal courts, producing some unexpected twists.
"I'm giving up and can't fight this," said Ross Plank, 36, of Playa Del Ray, Calif. He had professed his innocence but surrendered after lawyers found on his computer traces of hundreds of songs that had been deleted one day after he was sued.
Plank, recently married, refinanced his home for the money.
"Apparently, they would be able to garnish my earnings for the rest of my life," Plank said. "For the amount I'm settling, this made sense. I didn't see any other way. They've got all the power in the world."
The campaign has also produced worries, even from one federal judge, that wealthy record companies could trample some of the 3,935 people across the country who have been sued since the first such cases were filed in September 2003.
"I've never had a situation like this before, where there are powerful plaintiffs and powerful lawyers on one side and then a whole slew of ordinary folks on the other side," said U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner at a hearing in Boston. Dozens of such lawsuits have been filed in her court.
On the West Coast, another judge rejected an injunction sought by record companies against one Internet user, saying it would violate her rights.
So far, however, record companies are largely winning their cases, according to a review by The Associated Press of hundreds of lawsuits. They did lose a major ruling this week when a U.S. appeals court in California said manufacturers of software that can be used to download music illegally aren't liable, leaving record labels to pursue lawsuits against Internet users.
James McDonough of Hingham, Mass., said being sued was "very vexing, very frustrating and quite frankly very intimidating." He told Gertner, the Boston judge, that his 14-year-old twins might be responsible for the "heinous crime" of downloading music "in the privacy in our family room with their friends."
Gertner has a teenage daughter and said she was familiar with software for downloading music. She blocked movement on all the Massachusetts cases for months, "to make sure that no one, frankly, is being ground up."
Gertner started ruling on cases again this month, when she threw out counterclaims accusing record companies of trespass and privacy invasions for searching the online music collections of Internet users.
At least 807 Internet users have already settled their cases by paying roughly $3,000 each in fines and promising to delete their illegal song collections, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the largest labels.
Experts said the amounts of those settlements -- compared to $7,500 or more for losing in court -- discourage people from mounting a defense that could resolve important questions about copyrights and the industry's methods for tracing illegal downloads.
"When you're being sued for a relatively small amount of money, it doesn't make sense to hire the specialized entertainment or copyright counsel," Gertner said at a hearing this summer.
In Milwaukee, Suheidy Roman, 25, said she couldn't afford a lawyer when her ex-boyfriend, Gary Kilps, told record companies that both of them had downloaded music on Roman's computer. Although she denies the accusation, Roman ignored legal papers sent to her home. A U.S. judge earlier this year granted a default judgment against her and Kilps, ordering each to pay more than $4,500.
Industry lawyers said they have won an estimated 60 such default judgments nationwide.
"I've got brothers and sisters and family who come here and use my computer all the time," Roman told the AP. "But as far as downloading or distributing music, I don't do that. ... I don't have any money for an attorney, let alone for any judgment against me." She said she is unemployed with two small children.
Roman said that since she was sued, she hasn't talked to Kilps. He doesn't have a telephone listing and didn't return calls from AP to his relatives.
Lawyers said they traced to Roman and Kilps an Internet account distributing songs by UB40, Tu Pac (search), Destiny's Child and Air Supply (search). They said the illicit music collection also was associated with an account under the name "Flaka," which Roman acknowledges is her nickname. She told AP she deleted all the files on her computer, not just any songs.
In a few courthouses, the music industry has stumbled even in victory. A judge in California rejected an injunction banning Lisa Dickerson of Santa Ana, Calif., from illegally distributing music online. Although the judge agreed Dickerson was guilty, he said there was no evidence she was still breaking the law and determined that such a ban on future behavior would violate her rights. She was ordered to pay record companies $6,200 in penalties and court costs.
Still, the California consultant who recently agreed to pay the largest settlement in any of the lawsuits, $11,000, urged Internet users not to take solace in rare procedural victories.
"It scares me," Plank said. "For anyone fighting any of these lawsuits -- unless they have nothing to lose -- the only thing to do is settle. You have no power against these people."