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ISPs Pursue Music Pirates, Not RIAA

Is it the calm before the storm? Possibly, as the music industry is ceasing most legal pursuits against music-sharing consumers, and is passing the torch over to ISPs.

The announcement is certainly a shock, as the notorious defender of the music industry has gone after over 35,000 people since it initially launched its legal campaign back in 2003. But while the RIAA plans to pass the torch over to Internet Service Providers, these ISPs aren't taking the burdens likely, and currently has not agreed to alter customer accounts despite some reports suggesting otherwise. Unfortunately, for those still facing lawsuits, the RIAA still plans to continue with its outstanding cases despite the new direction.

Apparently, the overall plan is to not go after low-end music pirates with legal threats, but to slap their hands with warning emails a few times before limiting or even shutting down their Internet connection altogether. The RIAA will still use the same questionable process of investigating file sharing activity, and will contact each ISP directly with the identifying information. Ultimately, as the Washington Post initially described, the RIAA has tossed out its need for the government and has now self-proclaimed itself as the music industry Sherriff, with the ISP serving as the bumbling deputy.

The Wall Street Journal originally revealed the RIAA's decision Friday (story), and while many artists, publishers, and even consumers may breathe a heavy sigh of relief, others criticize the RIAA's new plan, saying that the company is taking a dangerous step. In fact, it could mean that even more music fans will be harassed than ever before. Although the music industry will not know the offending consumer's identity, ISPs will no longer remain neutral and must enforce the new agreement.

"The problem is the lack of due process for those accused," says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff Attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for Internet rights. "In a world where hundreds of thousands, or millions, of copyright infringement allegations are automatically generated and delivered to ISPs, mistakes are going to be made. ... Anyone who has ever had to fight to correct an error on their credit reports will be able to imagine the trouble we're in for."

It's widely known that the RIAA's legal attempts has been full of mistakes and embarassments, one of which consisted of suing a dead woman back in 2005, claiming that the deceased woman made more than 700 songs available on the Internet. The group even went after a 12-year-old girl who stored a MP3 of her favorite TV show on her hard drive. Overall, the RIAA's legal actions has proven ineffective in reducing unauthorized file-sharing. "Downloading from P2P networks is more popular than ever, despite the widespread public awareness of lawsuits," reports the EFF. "And the lawsuit campaign has not resulted in any royalties to artists. One thing has become clear: suing music fans is no answer to the P2P dilemma."

But in a report posted over on CNET News, the RIAA isn't dropping legal actions altogether. According to music industry insiders, the group will still pursue legal action against consumers who download 5,000 to 6,000 songs a month. For those who fall under the new enforcement plan, it may be possible that accused consumers will be placed on a black list not only with the current ISP, but on multiple services, all based on "allegations of breaking the law."

Allegations. Not verdicts passed by a Judge, but merely allegations.

The EFF suggests that a file-sharing network be established where users pay a set $5 fee every month. Not only would artists and right holders receive compensation, but the current file sharing would be legalized. "So long as they pay, the fans are free to keep doing what they are going to do anyway—share the music they love using whatever software they like on whatever computer platform they prefer—without fear of lawsuits," says the EFF in this report. "The money collected gets divided among rights holders based on the popularity of their music. In exchange, file sharing music fans who pay (or have their ISP or software provider or other intermediary pay on their behalf) will be free to download whatever they like, using whatever software works best for them."

Could this ultimately solve the music-sharing problem? Perhaps, but there will always be the consumers who will find a way around the system, either by setting up a private P2P network with hacked software, or turning to Usenet where downloading activity is nearly impossible to track. As the EFF states, pursuing legal actions against low-end file sharing consumers has proven ineffective. ISP-enforced blacklisting, based on RIAA data, may ultimately force the majority of Internet users offline (that's called sarcasm). Providing a flat-fee PSP may work, but with MySpace Music, YouTube, iMeem and other streaming music services, the music industry may see a huge shift in direction again.

At least consumers can rejoice momentarily: the music industry may have just emerged from the Dark Ages.