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.