RIAA seeks to alter file

The Recording Industry Association of America has an ambitious goal with its first wave of lawsuits against file swappers: trying to change an anarchic, deeply rooted online culture.

As yet, evidence is mixed as to whether the group’s attempts are succeeding. According to several Net monitoring groups, traffic on file-swapping networks fell throughout the period of impending lawsuits. But the file-trading companies themselves, and other independent statistics, show that downloads of the software remain high.

Nevertheless, Monday’s 261 lawsuits have changed the legal landscape–and are likely to work subtle shifts on many more people’s minds, some industry analysts say.

“As things stood a month ago, (file swapping) was perceived by consumers to be completely risk-free,” Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff said. “People come up with all kinds of reasons to justify what they’re doing if they think there’s no chance of getting caught. But it’s a lot harder to rationalize reasons for doing this when your neighbor got carted away and had to pay a fine.”

That cultural shift is the ultimate aim of the recording industry. The fines likely to be levied from the first 261 file swappers will be insignificant compared with the legal fees spent on the issue. The lawsuits and the publicity leading up to them are part of an education campaign–or scare campaign, as critics of the industry say.

The education is happening on several fronts. Outside of the courts, students at schools such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania are being given minicourses in online copyright law as a requirement for signing up for their campus network access. Down the road, many schools hope to offer students a subsidized legal alternative to Kazaa on campus.

By some measures, the campaign appears to be working already. According to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings, Kazaa usage has dropped precipitously since May. Late that month, about 6.2 million people logged on to the network at various times, compared with just 4.3 million the last week of August. That figure declined consistently throughout the summer, the research company said.

The NPD Group, which measures “music acquisition” by consumers, said that all told, people are downloading about 30 percent fewer songs now than during the spring, when the phenomenon hit a peak. About 852 million songs found their way onto PCs in the United States in April–the majority of which were downloaded through file-swapping networks–compared with 612 million in July.

That’s still hundreds of millions more songs than the RIAA would like. Moreover, other measures show continuing, unabated interest in file swapping. According to Download.com, a software aggregation site operated by News.com publisher CNET Networks, the Kazaa software was downloaded a little more than 2.7 million times last week. That’s about the same level of interest shown in late April, before the RIAA announced its plans to sue.

StreamCast Networks, which has marketed its Morpheus software as having tools to protect privacy, said it also has seen interest in its software rise over the past several months.

“We’ve seen a steady increase,” StreamCast CEO Michael Weiss said. “We’re almost double what we were 12 weeks ago.”

Whatever the truth of these numbers, the landscape changed irrevocably Monday. The headline stories of parents, grandparents and a 12-year-old girl finding their way into the RIAA’s legal crosshairs will almost certainly produce more scrutiny over what happens on family computers and dorm room PCs around the country.

It’s still too early to tell what the outcome of that change may be. But RIAA critics say the actions have only backed the industry further into a corner.

“This really is an incredible squandered opportunity for the recording industry,” said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the most prominent opponents of the RIAA’s legal strategies. “Attempting to sue 60 million Americans into submission is not a business model.”

The RIAA defended its actions. “Our goal is not to be vindictive or punitive,” said RIAA President Cary Sherman. “It is simply to get peer-to-peer users to stop offering music that does not belong to them.”

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