September 10, 2003 9:04 AM PDT

RIAA sued for amnesty offer

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A day after the Recording Industry Association of America filed a slew of lawsuits against alleged illegal song swappers, it became the target of legal action over its own "amnesty" program.

California resident Eric Parke, on behalf of the general public of the state, filed a suit Tuesday against the trade association because of its amnesty, or "Clean Slate," program, a provisional shield it introduced Monday that allows people to avoid legal action by stepping forward and forfeiting any illegally traded songs. The suit, filed in the Marin Superior Court of California, charges that the RIAA's program is a deceptive and fraudulent business practice.

It is "designed to induce members of the general public...to incriminate themselves and provide the RIAA and others with actionable admissions of wrongdoing under penalty of perjury while (receiving)...no legally binding release of claims...in return," according to the complaint.

"This lawsuit seeks a remedy to stop the RIAA from engaging in unlawful, misleading and fraudulent business practices," the suit reads.

The RIAA responded to the suit with a maxim: "No good deed goes unpunished, apparently."

"It's also unfortunate that a lawyer would try to prevent others from getting the assurances they want that they will not be sued," an RIAA representative wrote in an e-mail.

The complaint is the first legal retaliation to the RIAA's lawsuit campaign against individual file swappers. The trade group filed 261 lawsuits against computer users it said were exclusively "egregious" file swappers, marking the first time copyright laws have been used on a mass scale against individual Net users. The barrage of lawsuits signaled a turning point in the industry's three-year fight against online song-trading services such as Kazaa and the now-defunct Napster and one of the most controversial moments in the recording industry's digital history.

On Tuesday, the RIAA settled its first case with Brianna Lahara, a 12-year-old New York resident. The recording industry agreed to drop its case against the preteen in exchange for $2,000, a sum considerably lower than previous settlement arrangements. Legal actions by the RIAA had been taken on a sporadic basis against operators of pirate servers or sites, but ordinary computer users have never before been at serious risk of liability for widespread behavior.

After long years of avoiding direct conflict with file swappers who might also be music buyers, industry executives said they have lost patience. Monday's lawsuits are just the first wave of what the group said ultimately could be "thousands more" lawsuits filed over the next few months.

Under the RIAA's "Clean Slate" program, file swappers must destroy any copies of copyrighted works they have downloaded from services such as Kazaa and sign a notarized affidavit pledging never to trade copyrighted works online again.

But Ira Rothken, legal counsel for Parke, said after reviewing the RIAA's legal documents that the trade group provides no real amnesty for such file swappers. With the legalese, the trade group does not agree to destroy data or promise to protect users from further suits, Rothken said.

"The legal documents only give one thing to people in return: that the RIAA won't cooperate," Rothken said. "The RIAA's legal document does not even prevent RIAA members from suing."

The suit asks the court to enjoin the RIAA from falsely advertising its program.

CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.

 

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