WASHINGTON – The recording industry on Monday announced settlements with 52 of the 261 Internet users it sued over allegations they illegally permitted others to download music from their computers using popular file-sharing software.
The Recording Industry Association of America (search), which plans to file hundreds more lawsuits in October, did not specify how much it collected. Defense lawyers familiar with some cases said payments ranged from $2,500 to $7,500 each, with at least one settlement for as much as $10,000.
The settlements, which do not include any admission of wrongdoing, require Internet users to destroy copies of illegally downloaded songs (search) and agree to "not make any public statements that are inconsistent" with the agreement.
The RIAA, the trade group for the largest labels, said one dozen other Internet users also agreed to pay unspecified amounts after they learned they might be sued. They had previously been notified by their Internet providers that music lawyers were seeking their names to sue and agreed to pay to avoid a lawsuit.
"The music community's efforts have triggered a national conversation, especially between parents and kids, about what's legal and illegal when it comes to music on the Internet," RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a statement. "In the end it will be decided not in the courtrooms, but at kitchen tables across the country."
Just three weeks ago, the RIAA filed 261 lawsuits against what it described as "major offenders" illegally distributing on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each. Lawyers and activists said more settlements were inevitable.
"We don't know how many additional people are negotiating," said Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (search). "There could well be a large number of people deciding whether to write the check or not."
Daniel N. Ballard, a lawyer whose firm is representing at least four defendants, said the settlement offers he was familiar with -- between $3,000 and $4,000 -- appeared aimed at discouraging Internet users from hiring defense lawyers.
"It's a small enough number that it doesn't make economic sense to hire an attorney to litigate these," Ballard said.
The RIAA also said 838 people have requested amnesty from future lawsuits, in exchange for a formal admission they illegally shared music and a pledge to delete the songs off their computers. The offer does not apply to people who already are targets of legal action.
"I'm not surprised that 838 people have been intimidated into signing this," said Ballard, who noted there are roughly 62 million Americans who participate in file-sharing networks. He called those seeking amnesty a small ratio of total users.
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. Similarly, people who settled their lawsuits with the RIAA conceivably still could be sued by others for infringement.
The RIAA has promised that hundreds or even thousands more lawsuits will be filed, with the next round coming as early as October. It has continued issuing hundreds of copyright subpoenas through U.S. court clerks' offices nationwide to compel Internet providers to identify subscribers suspected of illegally distributing music online.
The announcement about settlements came one day before a Senate hearing to examine the industry's use of lawsuits and copyright subpoenas to identify Internet users accused of distributing music. Critics have argued that judges should be more involved in issuing the subpoenas, which are approved by clerks and are the subject of an ongoing federal appeals court fight over their constitutionality.
"This isn't a legal matter, this is a PR event," said Greg Bildson, the chief operating and technology officer for LimeWire, a popular file-sharing service.
Bildson complained there aren't enough checks involved in the subpoenas used by the music industry to identify Internet users. "It's ridiculous the kind of power that they wield," he said.
LimeWire and other file-sharing companies have announced a new trade group, P2P United, to urge Congress to approve compulsory licenses for music files, which would force labels to offer songs on services for flat fees.