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Group sues 261 over music-sharing

46 are accused in Boston area

The nation's largest record labels filed lawsuits yesterday accusing 261 people across the country, including 46 in the Boston area, of illegally sharing copyrighted music.

The move by the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the five largest US music labels, is the most drastic measure taken by the entertainment industry since the seminal file-sharing program Napster, devised in a Northeastern University dorm four years ago, made possible the free downloading of millions of songs.

The lawsuits are the first against individual users of Kazaa, Grokster, Gnutella, and other file-sharing programs.

Accusing the defendants of copyright infringement, the music association is requesting statutory damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song, bringing the potential liability of some file-sharers into the millions of dollars.

After a federal judge ruled last spring that the makers of such software were not responsible for the actions of their users, the music industry began subpoenaing Internet service providers for the identities of some of the most active distributors of copyrighted songs.

Yesterday, the industry group made good on its research, suing 261 individuals it claimed were distributing on average more than 1,000 music files. The association said it planned to sue thousands more in coming months.

With 18 percent of the lawsuits filed in US District Court in Boston, Eastern Massachusetts may have the largest concentration of online music-sharers targeted by the RIAA. The court yesterday made only one of the 46 lawsuits available to the public and said it intended to make the rest available today.

Linking millions of people, these peer-to-peer programs allow people to search the shared contents of other computers, then download digital music files to play on a PC, burn onto a compact disc, or transfer to a music player.

So far, the music industry association has drawn a distinction between people who download and those who distribute. Its officials said they plan to sue only people who grant free access to copyrighted music by keeping the software's sharing features enabled -- not people who simply have illegally copied songs on their hard drives. Most file-sharing programs allow users to seal off their music from other people.

In a gesture to the estimated 60 million file-sharers in the United States who have not yet incurred the industry's legal wrath, the RIAA also yesterday offered to grant amnesty from future lawsuits in exchange for a notarized promise of reform.

"There has, up to this date, been a perception that file-sharing is completely risk-free," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge. "Now you have to say that there are some traffic cops around, and if you go through the red light you'll get in trouble."

The RIAA, based in Washington, warned 10 weeks ago that it would sue users and sent more than 4 million instant messages to file-sharers, after several legal fights with the companies that designed the programs failed to curb the widespread distributing and downloading of songs.

The industry has attributed a sharp decline in record sales during the last three years to online piracy.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits are Capitol Records, Elektra Entertainment, Virgin Records America, Arista Records, Sony Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings, and BMG.

RIAA officials said they have already begun settlement discussions with a handful of people who realized they were under scrutiny. After receiving subpoenas, many Internet service providers told their customers that their online identities had been unmasked. A handful of those customers are close to settling for $3,000, RIAA president Cary Sherman said. Creating file-sharing programs has proven more costly. In a settlement with the industry association, four computer hackers at US colleges who wrote search engines used to locate and download music on university networks each agreed to pay $12,000 to $17,000.

"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation, but when your product is being regularly stolen there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action," Sherman said.

Sixty-eight percent of young Internet users who share music online said fear of jail time or a fine would stop them, according to a recent report by Forrester Research. NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., said file-sharing fell 23 percent after the RIAA first threatened consumer lawsuits, from 852 million files in April to 655 million in June -- a sharper decline than NPD Group had expected from students leaving their fast college networks for the summer.

The lawsuits filed yesterday featured extensive lists of songs allegedly shared illegally. In one of the 46 claims filed in Boston, Noor Alaujan, of Cambridge, was accused of sharing more than 900 songs, including "Work It Out" by Beyonce Knowles, "Love Shack" by the B-52's, and Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Alaujan could not be reached for comment.

In some cases, the RIAA conceded yesterday, a lawsuit culd target the wrong person: The RIAA's investigators say they can tell that a song was pirated. They can then, through a subpoena, discover the identity of the user through his or her Internet service provider. But if the person doing the file-sharing is diffferent from the person whose name is on the account, an unsuspecting roommate or parent could face a lawsuit for something he or she never did.

A 71-year-old Texas man, Durwood Pickle, told the Associated Press yesterday that his teen-aged grandchildren must have downloaded songs during visits to his home, then left the sharing features enabled so other Internet users could access them. He said his grandchildren had explained the situation to the RIAA in an e-mail.

"I didn't do it, and I don't feel like I'm responsible," Pickle said. "Dadgum it, got to get a lawyer on this."

Sherman, the RIAA president, said in a conference call earlier yesterday that parents should be held responsible for the children's actions.

"We expect to hear, `It wasn't me, it was my kid.' If they would prefer that the lawsuit be amended to name the kid, we'd be happy to do that," he said.

Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, plans to hold hearings on the tactics the music industry uses to investigate people it intends to sue.

But the industry yesterday introduced an amnesty program designed to head off lawsuits. As part of a program it calls Clean Slate, the RIAA promised to not sue people who sign a notarized promise to erase all improperly downloaded files from their computers or portable music players, destroy all CDs burned from illegal copies of songs, and never again illegally download or share copyrighted music.

Michael McGuire, research director for GartnerG2, a market research firm in San Jose, Calif., said the recording industry is holding out this amnesty offer to fight its reputation as a bully.

"If you use sticks all the time instead of carrots, there's a real danger that you might alienate people who haven't taken sides yet," he said, adding that even people who don't swap files could cut back on music purchases to protest legal actions they perceive as heavy-handed.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet privacy group in San Francisco, cautioned that signing such an affidavit, available at www.riaa.com, could create more legal problems than it solves. Although the RIAA promised not to sue, nothing prevents individual record labels and bands that control their own music rights from issuing a subpoena for those affidavits, said Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney with EFF.

"You've now signed a confession of guilt with the RIAA," he said.

Even as they sue people who illegally swap music, the record labels and music publishers are working furiously to boost their support for commercial music sites that offer subscriptions or for-fee downloads with some copying protections.

In addition to services like Pressplay, Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store, BuyMusic

.com, and Real Networks Inc.'s Rhapsody, another flood of legal music services is expected over the next year from Amazon.com, Sony Music, and others. Among the newcomers is the original: Roxio Inc., a digital music company in Santa Clara, Calif., bought the rights to the Napster name and plans to resurrect the service by Christmas -- but this time, for a fee instead of for free.

"There is a way to compete with free," said McGuire, the GartnerG2 analyst. "It's called convenience at a reasonable price."

Chris Gaither can be reached at gaither@globe.com. Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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