Gigs & Bytes: All By Herself
In one corner are the folks who feel that swapping songs is perfectly legal, claiming that they’re only “sampling” the music for later purchases. They liken their actions to taping a song from the radio or previewing a track down at the local record shop.
Then there are those who appear to be totally clueless regarding song trading. Even though they own computers, they’re not the only ones using the machines. And when the RIAA lawyers come knocking, these people may not know what the barristers are talking about.
This is the situation Patricia Santangelo finds herself in. The White Plains, N.Y., mother of five, who a federal judge described as “an Internet-illiterate parent, who does not know Kazaa from kazoo, and who can barely retrieve her email,” has vowed to fight the recording industry’s infringement lawsuit targeting her as a music pirate.
Like the thousands who came before Santangelo, the RIAA offered to settle the lawsuit for a few thousand dollars along with signing an agreement promising never to infringe major label songs again. However, Santangelo would have none of it.
“It’s a moral issue,” Santangelo said. “I can’t sign something that says I agree to stop doing something I never did.”
Despite the 16,000 or so people the RIAA has sued over the last couple of years, very few cases have actually made it to trial. Instead, the RIAA offers to settle out of court. When confronted with choosing between paying legal fees as well as massive copyright infringement penalties if one loses such a lawsuit, or just paying something like $3,000 to make the whole thing go away, you can guess what most people choose to do. Call it the RIAA’s version of “shock and awe.”
But Santangelo has decided to fight. After spending $24,000 in legal fees, she ran out of cash to retain counsel and ended up having to dismiss her lawyer. No matter. Her former attorney says Santangelo doesn’t really need his services to win this one.
“I’m sure she’s going to win,” Santangelo’s former attorney, Ray Beckerman, said. I don’t see how they could win. They have no case. They have no evidence she ever did anything. They don’t know how the files appeared on her computer or who put them there.”
Which is probably true. Although most news stories about these lawsuits paint the accused as illegal downloaders, the reality is that these people are keeping songs on their hard drives in special “shared” directories which are often set up automatically by P2P software installation routines and are accessible by other P2P users.
Since most songs acquired through P2P networks end up in these shared directories, the actual copyright infringement violation isn’t from downloading. Instead, the copyright violation occurs when copyrighted material is made available for others to download. And the easiest way to make copyrighted material available is by placing the content in one of these shared directories.
But Santangelo supposedly didn’t know any of this. In fact, she was so ignorant of the entire P2P downloading controversy that when she was first contacted by the RIAA, she thought the organization’s lawyers had made a mistake. Furthermore, she thought they’d leave her alone once she explained it to them. Yes, she was that naive.
“I assumed that when I explained to them who I was and that I wasn’t a computer downloader, it would just go away,” Santangelo said. “I didn’t really understand what it all meant. But they just kept insisting on a financial settlement.”
Of course, the recording industry never lets one of these cases “just go away.” Instead, the RIAA uses legal action to strike fear in the hearts of other P2P users. However, Santangelo’s current situation does raise some questions regarding just who is responsible when a computer is shared by more than one member of a household.
So far, the RIAA has targeted whoever is named on the Internet access account, which has resulted in more than a few cases like Santangelo’s where grandparents have had to pay for the infringement sins of their grandchildren. And even though Santangelo has five kids, she’s not blaming them for her predicament. Instead, she suspects one of her kid’s friends as being the culprit.
Of course, there’s room for a lot of finger pointing here. You could say that parents should be more responsible and monitor their children’s Internet activities. Others might say that the whole idea of the RIAA suing people over what is on their hard drives smacks of some kind of corporate Big Brotherism. It could be argued that the person whose name is on the Internet account should not be held liable for what other people do with that account. However, there’s plenty of legal precedent holding parents responsible for the actions of their children.
In the meantime, Santangelo is waiting to go to court. Judge Colleen McMahon has already ruled that the labels have enough of a case to continue the lawsuit, saying that the issue is whether “an Internet-illiterate parent” could be held liable for her children’s downloads.
And you can bet that Santangelo is paying more attention to what her kids and their friends are using her computer for.
“I read some of these blogs and they say, ‘Why didn’t this woman have a firewall?'” Santangelo said. “Well, I have a firewall now. I have a ton of security now.”