A majority of Americans say the music industry should not sue people who illegally download music off the Internet, according to a new poll by the legal Web site FindLaw. Still, legal experts say the industry’s suits have legal merit and urge consumers to be aware of copyright laws and their legal rights before downloading from any Web site.
The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major recording companies, filed copyright infringement suits last week against 482 people in St. Louis, Denver, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., who allegedly downloaded music illegally from the Internet. Since last September, more than 3,400 people have been sued by the recording industry for damages of up to half a million dollars each. At least 600 of those cases have been settled for approximately $3,000 each. None of the cases has yet gone to trial.
According to the national survey by FindLaw, 56 percent of American adults oppose the lawsuits. Thirty-seven percent support the industry’s legal actions. Seven percent of those surveyed had no opinion. One thousand adults were surveyed, with results accurate plus or minus three percent.
“Although the RIAA’s lawsuits are unsettling to many, they are based upon sound law because it is a clear violation of copyright law to make a verbatim copy of a protected sound recording,” says Prof. Sharon Sandeen, who teaches intellectual property law at the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. “The underlying public policy at work is the notion that without copyright laws, musical artists would be less inclined to create music and, as a result, there would be fewer sound recordings. So the individuals who complain about the lawsuits should ask themselves: ‘Would I rather live in a world with freely distributed but less music, or pay for the music I enjoy so that there will be more of it?'”
“I suspect that many people, when educated about the purpose of copyright law, support the law,” Sandeen continued. “Public opposition to the lawsuits may be due, in part, to what some people consider hard-handed tactics by the RIAA.”
The survey found that opposition to music industry lawsuits was much higher among younger people. Nearly two-thirds of those between the ages of 18 and 34 said the music industry should not sue people who illegally download music. Many of the people who have been sued are college or high school students and their parents. The RIAA has been pressuring colleges and universities to limit students’ ability to download large files through campus computer networks. Opposition to the lawsuits was also higher among people with lower incomes.
Legal actions to combat illegal music downloading may increase. Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently introduced legislation that would allow artists to sue the makers of file-sharing software used to illegally download music.
“In the end, there is no such thing as cost-free music downloading,” says Professor Marci Hamilton at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “The freewheeling early years of the Internet led adults and teenagers alike to believe that whatever came across their computer screen could be and ought to be downloaded cost-free. In many ways, downloading is like shoplifting: an exciting and slightly risky diversion, a seemingly petty vice in an otherwise law-abiding life. But like shoplifting, illegal music downloading violates the law and exacts a cost on society.”
Consumers concerned about their rights can find the latest music industry lawsuits, copyright laws, analysis by legal experts and a searchable directory on lawyers specializing in the Internet and copyright law at a special section of FindLaw, the leading legal Web site.