The Recording Industry Association of America, citing substantial sales declines, said it will begin Thursday to search Internet file-sharing networks to identify users who offer "substantial" collections of mp3 music files for downloading. It expects to file at least several hundred lawsuits seeking financial damages within eight to 10 weeks.
Executives for the RIAA, the Washington-based lobbying group that represents major labels, would not say how many songs on a user's computer will qualify for a lawsuit. The new campaign comes just weeks after U.S. appeals court rulings requiring Internet providers to identify subscribers suspected of illegally sharing music and movie files.
The RIAA's president, Carey Sherman, said tens of millions of Internet users of popular file-sharing software after Thursday will expose themselves to "the real risk of having to face the music."
"It's stealing. It's both wrong and illegal," Sherman said. Alluding to the court decisions, Sherman said Internet users who believe they can hide behind an alias online were mistaken. "You are not anonymous," Sherman said. "We're going to begin taking names."
Critics accused the RIAA of resorting to heavy-handed tactics likely to alienate millions of Internet file-sharers.
"This latest effort really indicates the recording industry has lost touch with reality completely," said Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Does anyone think more lawsuits are going to be the answer? Today they have declared war on the American consumer."
Sherman disputed that consumers, who are gradually turning to legitimate Web sites to buy music legally, will object to the industry's latest efforts against pirates.
"You have to look at exactly who are your customers," he said. "You could say the same thing about shoplifters — are you worried about alienating them? All sorts of industries and retailers have come to the conclusion that they need to be able to protect their rights. We have come to the same conclusion."
Mike Godwin of Public Knowledge, a consumer group that has challenged broad crackdowns on file-sharing networks, said Wednesday's announcement was appropriate because it targeted users illegally sharing copyrighted files.
"I'm sure it's going to freak them out," Godwin said. "The free ride is over." He added: "I wouldn't be surprised if at least some people engaged in file-trading decide to resist and try to find ways to thwart the litigation strategy."
The RIAA said its lawyers will file lawsuits initially against people with the largest collections of music files they can find online. U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer, but Sherman said the RIAA will be open to settlement proposals from defendants.
"We have no hard and fast rule on how many files you have to be distributing ... to come within our radar screen," Sherman said. "We will go after the worst offenders first."
The RIAA said it expected to file "at least several hundred lawsuits" within eight to 10 weeks but will continue to file lawsuits afterward on a regular basis.