LOS ANGELES: The record industry opened a new front in its war against online piracy by surprising hundreds of thousands of Internet song swappers with an instant message warning that they could be "easily" identified and face "legal penalties" for their actions.
About 200,000 users of the Grokster and Kazaa file-sharing services received the warning notice and millions more will get notices in coming weeks, said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the music companies.
The message said in part: "It appears that you are offering copyrighted music to others from your computer. ...When you break the law, you risk legal penalties. There is a simple way to avoid that risk: DON'T STEAL MUSIC either by offering it to others to copy or downloading it on a 'file-sharing' system like this. When you offer music on these systems, you are not anonymous and you can easily be identified."
The mass messaging came after a federal judge on Friday delivered a setback to the music industry's efforts to shut down song-swapping services, and a day after Apple Computer Inc. unveiled an online music store aimed at wooing users from the free networks.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson on Friday ruled the Grokster and Morpheus services should not be shut down because they cannot control what is traded over their systems.
Trade groups for the movie studios and record labels said they would appeal the ruling, the first significant legal setback for the entertainment industry in its battle against the popular "peer-to-peer" services that allow users to download files for free. The RIAA's Sherman said that while the messaging effort was planned long ago, the timing was fortunate since some song swappers might misinterpret Friday's ruling to mean that copyright infringement was legal.
The move immediately angered some Internet users. "Way to go, RIAA. Sue and threaten the public, your customers. I think I'll go and download," one posting on Yahoo said. Sharman Networks Ltd, the Australian firm that owns Kazaa, said in a statement, said that rather than cooperating with the file-sharing network "the RIAA continues to choose to attack some of its most loyal customers."
Sharman said it objected to any effort to enforce copyrights that violated the law, its own user agreements or that would "indiscriminately spam, mislead or confuse." Meanwhile, Verizon Communications, embroiled in a separate copyright infringement suit with the recording industry, said the move undermined the RIAA's argument in that case.
Last week, Verizon suffered a setback when a U.S. court said the phone company must reveal the names of customers suspected of downloading copyrighted songs from the Internet without permission. The RIAA argued that Verizon is obligated under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act to help the music industry protect its copyrights. Verizon says it is willing to help, but argued that the law only applies to Web pages stored on its computers, not traffic on the "peer-to-peer" networks that merely travel across its wires.
Sarah Deutsch, an attorney for Verizon, said that the RIAA has said they could not contact users on their own. "I think this undermines their case because now they are acknowledging they can contact the users on a massive scale," she said.
Its not the first time the recording industry has targeted individual users. In April, the RIAA sued four students who were operating networks on three college campuses where it claims the networks were being used to illegally trade copies of music files. The warning on Tuesday was sent by the RIAA on behalf of the world's big record labels owned by AOL Time Warner, EMI Group Plc, Bertelsmann AG, Vivendi Universal and Sony Corp.