How the RIAA Works

By: John Kelly

How the RIAA Has Fought Piracy

Seeing the piracy problem developing, the RIAA supported the enforcement of the No Electronic Theft (NET) legislation that was passed back in 1997. The law made theft of copyrighted material a crime even if no commercial use was intended. That put music fans on notice, buy many continued to think that sharing music or burning CDs was OK.

Napster, which debuted in 1999, raised the problem to a new level. A so-called peer-to-peer (P2P) service, Napster let users upload and download music, copyright or no copyright. At its peak, Napster gave its 25 million users access to 80 million songs, most of them stolen [source: CNBC]. The RIAA sued in December 1999, and Napster eventually went bankrupt.


But music fans were hooked on free music, and the RIAA found itself in a game of Whac-A-Mole. Napster was followed by similar services: Aimster and AudioGalaxy, then LimeWire, Morpheus, eDonkey and BitTorrent. The RIAA joined in cases against two of these services, Grokster and Streamcast, in 2003. This litigation reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2005 that anyone promoting copyright theft can be held responsible. The RIAA sued Kazaa, another popular P2P network, in 2006. That service no longer exists, but efforts to skirt the law continued. A suit against the file-sharing service LimeWire in 2010 was another RIAA victory.

The RIAA stirred up the music world even more when it began to file other lawsuits against individuals. Starting in 2003, the RIAA sued more than 30,000 people [source: Kravets]. Most, including 12-year-old Brianna LaHara, settled out of court, but had to pay several thousand dollars for uploading or downloading copyrighted music. A few went to trial, lost and were hit with large judgments.

Many of the targets of the suits didn't even know they were breaking the law. Some thought that, by paying a subscription fee to a P2P service, they were legally entitled to use it to share digital tunes. Regardless of whether ignorance of the law was a valid excuse, RIAA officials said they were trying to raise awareness of music piracy and slow the theft of copyrighted material. They pointed out that before the suits began, only 35 percent of people knew that sharing copyrighted music from unauthorized sources was illegal [source: RIAA].

Heated charges were hurled at the RIAA. Was the association unfairly targeting a few uninformed music fans? Were the penalties it sought unjust? One woman was fined $222,000 for uploading songs to the Internet [source: Sandoval]. A single mother faced a $500,000 judgment [source:]. In the face of mounting criticism, the RIAA stopped filing most lawsuits against individuals in 2008.

In the past few years, legal music sales have increased and the percentage of users illegally sharing tunes has dropped, but piracy remains a huge problem. It has become even easier to copy music as high-capacity DVD discs, flash drives and external hard drives have made transferring thousands of songs a breeze. Digital storage lockers and anonymous file sharing services have opened new avenues for piracy. However, the RIAA has begun to focus on education rather than litigation to try to stem the tide.