As a life long metal fan, one of the most surreal images burned into my brain pan was Lars Ulrich testifying before the United States Congress on the threat Napster and other file sharing services posed to the music industry. As that Danish twit rambled on and on about the rights of the artist and the sanctity of copyrights, all I could think of was how Metallica got their name out there through the old “tape trading” circuits in the early 80s. That said, I obviously respect the rights of artists to benefit financially from their creations (except for Lars). In that spirit for law abidingness, I thought it would be educational to briefly discuss some recent developments in downloading litigation and how it might affect you, the music lover.

For those paying attention, the past year has seen a noticeable increase in litigation against so-called “illegal downloads” in the United States, and entire sites like Megaupload.com have been shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice for piracy. There are several reasons for this increase, the most obvious being the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) aggressive attempts to discourage downloading and make examples of those caught doing so. Recently, the RIAA was emboldened when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn a judgment for $675,000 against a college student for illegally downloading 30 songs (penalties ranging from $750 to $150,000 per download). While these types of cases make headlines and may act as a deterrent for some would-be downloaders, it isn’t the RIAA that’s truly driving the rise in download litigation.

That honor goes to the new breed of copyright lawyer given the cheeky moniker of “copyright troll” by the folks in the Cheeky Moniker Department ©. These lawyers see the potential for a whole new cottage industry and they attack like sharks in a pool full of tuna and fat kids. They spend their time scanning the file sharing sites looking for copyrighted material. Once located, they tend to bypass the RIAA and inform the artists or the labels directly and agree to sue on their behalf in exchange for a portion of the damages. These trolls are constantly scanning the “bit torrent” sites and other file sharing services with money in their eyes. This results in cases like the one against 80 people who allegedly downloaded music from All Shall Perish illegally. Despite the fact that the band, their management company and the label disavowed the lawsuit, the production company holding the copyrights is going ahead with the lawsuit.

Since these trolls are unaffiliated with any particular organization like the RIAA, they represent a whole different breed of nemesis for those who seek to download in disapproved ways, and their numbers are likely to grow exponentially in the coming years. As a lawyer, I, Steel Druhm ©, will be the first to tell you that every thought a lawyer has revolves around money (except when we think about sex on piles of money). Keeping this in mind, it isn’t hard to foresee that every successful lawsuit brought by a copyright troll will result in more copyright trolls coming onto the scene with dreams of a fast profit. Think of them as a digital version of ambulance chasers and you won’t be too far off. The biggest, most dangerous of the trolls are the U.S. Copyright Group and Righthaven, LLC, but others will appear all too soon.

Naturally, you can avoid the scourge of the copyright troll by avoiding the torrent and file sharing sites entirely, and using “legal” file services. Sadly, the chilling effects these lawsuits may have on the internet are not so easily sidestepped. Next time you think of downloading that old ABBA song illegally, remember…the trolls are watching.

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  • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

    “every thought a lawyer has revolves around money (except when we think about sex on piles of money)” = awesome.
    Seriously though, great article. Very informative.

  • Luckily for me, Happyland encourages downloading of cultural output. In fact, attempting to buy cultural output will land you in jail! It’s kinda topsy-turvy world over here!

  • These trolls & record companies are very single minded morons. The economy is in shambles and ‘lets blame the music pirates’. They can’t afford to buy the albums so they download them.

  • Can you name some of these companies? Curious. It sounds similar to what Righthaven did with newspapers. The publishers granted a license to Righthaven that covered only the option to take action against infringers and they split the settlement. The courts have thoroughly thrashed Righthaven for this, you cannot, under copyright law, grant a license for this. If these companies are doing a similar thing with music, it won’t last long. 

    • You don’t need to grant a license, they only need to contract with these agencies in a standard client-attorney relationship and reach an agreement as to what percentage of recovery goes to the agency bringing the suit.

      • So the labels are just using their own lawyers rather than using the RIAA’s. Sounds like same shit different day…

    • Other trolls include Malibu Media and The Copyright Enforcement Group. Apparently, Righthaven is in the process of reforming as a new entity as well.

  • Stasia98

    Well fortunately I don’t live in America a country in which all lawyers do most of the time is create more in justices.

    • Well, just keep in mind, Megaupload.com wasn’t in the US either but still got shut down by the US Dept. of (in)Justice.

      • Their servers were stateside. That’s enough. 

      • Stasia98

        i was just thinking of the poor sod who downloaded a few songs and then got a 675, 000 dollar fine … so messed up.

  • Apteronotus Albifrons

    I was wondering if you have done any empirical work to back up the article or is it just based on a few high profile cases. I ask because the recent Supreme Court case to which you refer had its complaint originally filed in 2007 and the demand letter was in 2003. In other words, the delay before cases reach the higher-profile appellate level may make it appear that a trend is more recent and prominent than it really is. 

    • The past 2 years have witnessed a notable uptick in lawsuits, mostly brought by the so called copyright trolls. This trend is likely to continue as long as it remains profitable for the trolls.

  • Can I use the two images on this page on my Facebook? See I’m asking first.

  • Stasia98

    Though what gripes me with the whole illegal downloading issue is the fact that music for young people (yes i know older people like metal too) is overpriced 30 dollars or so is too much for an album of music and if they made it a more reasonable price ie 10 dollars they would sell much more of it and have less downloading problems.

  • Robotron2084

    If you dig deep enough it seems everything goes back to publishers. Since the dawn of time they have screwed artists out of song rights and the cash that is owed them. When the Internet took off they became terrified as they watched their profits fly away with music downloads.
    Now artists are seeing that they can keep their song rights and make more money in the process (see In Rainbows by Radiohead for a good example).

    No longer do bands have to sell their souls just to get “signed”. Now the control is going back to the artists and the big companies are scared. This is also why we end up with a new SOPA process every few months. They’re not trying to protect art. They’re trying to control it.

  • So I’m just curious about what fellow readers think about the ethics (legality aside) of the following two things:
    A) Let’s say I’m in the US and a band that I like releases an album with some bonus tracks in Japan. If I buy the album, as I should, am I then ethically entitled to pirate the tracks that are unavailable in my country?
    B) If a band releases an album earlier in another part of the world, is it ethical to pirate it and then buy it when it comes out where I am?

    • Zadion

       I would say yes to both.