Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Music industry zealous in tracking, suing tune thieves

TAMPA — Ellen Saylor, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in Clearwater, does not exactly fit the profile of someone who might steal music on the Internet.

Yet America's largest record companies are suing her in federal court this month on accusations of illegally downloading music she didn't buy, a charge that has quietly ensnared dozens in the bay area in recent years, much to their fright. "I don't even know how to use a computer," Saylor says. "How could they say I'm doing something like that?"

Saylor stands to lose thousands of dollars if the record companies prevail, and she is not alone. With little fanfare, record companies are filing thousands of lawsuits per year across the country in an effort to discourage the illegal downloading they say has cost the music industry billions.

And just in this part of Florida, judges are awarding them hundreds of thousands of dollars for their claims.

Scores have been sued in Florida's Middle District since 2003, and facing the prospect of even larger costs in legal fees, at least 50 of them have not even bothered to fight the lawsuits in court, according to a review of records by the St. Petersburg Times. Judges have ordered them to pay the record companies a total of more than $300,000 in damages.

That doesn't include the many people who settle with the record companies rather than face a lawsuit. Attorneys who have handled the cases say there is little else for defendants to do but settle or simply allow the court to rule against them, with legal costs prohibitive and the prospect of a lengthy court battle with the billion-dollar record industry daunting.

Lawsuits were filed this month against Saylor and five others in the area, including 21-year-old Monika Pierzchlewicz, a student at the University of South Florida.

Pierzchlewicz's mother, Grazyna, said when she first learned of the lawsuit, she wanted to fight. But then she went online and read about other cases, including that of a Minnesota woman who decided to challenge her own copyright infringement lawsuit and was found liable by a jury last fall for $220,000 in damages.

That changed her tune. "I'm just so scared," she said this week. "I think we're just probably going to settle. I don't even want to go to court."

Her reaction was hardly unique among people facing the suit, according to Michael Wasylik, a Dade City lawyer who has handled several "file sharing" lawsuits in the bay area.

"The primary impact of these lawsuits is sheer terror in not only the targets, but their families," he said. "For college students especially, I get phone calls from mothers and fathers who are angry, who are upset, who are confused, who are terrified at what's going to happen to their children."

But the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group that represents the record companies, says the lawsuits are not about intimidation or making money, but rather the principle that stealing music on the Internet is exactly that — stealing.

"The reality of it is that nobody wants to get caught, and most people complain when they are," said Liz Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the RIAA. "Bringing lawsuits was never the music industry's first choice, rather a small piece of a large puzzle ultimately aimed at encouraging fans to go legal."

More than half of all college students download free music illegally, amounting to as many as 1.3-billion illegal downloads annually, according to studies cited by the record companies. To fight back, the RIAA monitors online file-sharing traffic and looks for copyrighted work being shared; when such material is found, investigators determine the user who was sharing the music.

Then they take action. The RIAA has filed more than 30,000 lawsuits since 2003 and has even set up a Web site where people can pay their settlements via credit card.

So that's what many people do. "It's impossible to fight it," Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who is a leading critic of the record industry's suits, said in a telephone interview. "They have no good options. They can't afford to pay for lengthy litigation; they can't afford the settlement."

That was the predicament facing Dunedin resident Morgan Halloway, a 23-year-old senior at St. Petersburg College. Halloway admits she downloaded music illegally — just like all her friends, she said — but never expected to face the wrath of the record companies.

"Your first thought is, 'How am I going to pay for this, am I going to go to jail?' " she recalled this week. "I didn't mean to do anything wrong. Why (sue) me, when so many people do it?"

Halloway said she tried to settle with the record companies but could not afford the $5,000 fee they demanded. "I tried to explain to them, 'Hey, I'm a full-time student, can I do a payment plan?'" she said. "They said, 'Well, that's not good enough for us.' "

So she did nothing, and a federal judge in April entered a $7,500 judgment against her, one of dozens piling up in federal court here. (Money made from the lawsuits is reinvested into education programs and deterrence efforts, Kennedy said. The court awards depend, in part, on the number of songs a person is accused of getting illegally.)

Halloway's father, John, 48, a retired Pinellas County sheriff's deputy, still fumes about the ordeal. "This is a record company shakedown, is what it is," he said. "It's time that it stops."

Saylor, meanwhile, didn't even realize she was being sued until a reporter telephoned her this week. The record companies say they caught her sharing more than 1,800 songs — including tracks by Destiny's Child, Kenny Chesney and Christina Aguilera — last summer.

A retired housekeeper of limited means, Saylor said she has a computer at home that a granddaughter has occasionally used for schoolwork, and nothing else. Faced with the lawsuit, she says she isn't sure what she'll do next.

"I've worked for everything I've got, and I don't understand why people are out there trying to rob you," she said. "I never thought anything like this would happen."

Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or [email protected]


How illegal file-sharing works

In general, record companies monitor peer-to-peer file sharing networks online — accessed through programs like Lime Wire and, before it was shut down, the original Napster — to see if copyright songs are available for download. The programs allow people to avail their music collection to fellow Internet users to download, and to search for songs (and movies and TV shows) to download for their own enjoyment. But people who share their music can be identified by their internet protocol (IP) address, which can then be traced to reveal their full identity and allow the record companies to file lawsuits.

Music industry zealous in tracking, suing tune thieves 07/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 3:20pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Justin Timberlake in Super Bowl halftime show for first time since 'wardrobe malfunction'


    Justin Timberlake has finally been invited back to the Super Bowl halftime show, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson caused a national controversy.

    Singer Janet Jackson covers her breast as Justin Timberlake holds part of her costume after her outfit came undone during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in 2004. The NFL announced Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, that Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 4 in Minnesota, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson cause a national controversy. [Associated Press]
  2. Here's what happened when 30 high school sophomores gave up their phones for a day


    LUTZ — They were everywhere at Steinbrenner High School. Teens with panic-stricken faces, furiously slapping one thigh, then the other.

    Grace Hayes, 15, left, and Kai'Rey Lewis, 15, talk and text friends after having a discussion about smartphone technology in Tiffany Southwell's English Literature class at Steinbrenner High last week. Southwell asked theme to give up their phones for a day and write about it. For Lewis, the ride home that day "was the longest bus ride in my life." [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  3. Cuban media treats visit by Tampa City Council as historic event


    TAMPA — Delegations of one kind or another have been traveling from Tampa to Cuba for years, even before President Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations between the two countries in December 2014.

    A Tampa delegation to Cuba this week was featured prominently in reports by the state-run media in Cuba, including Granma. From left are Tampa City Council vice chair Harry Cohen, St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice, Tampa philanthropist David Straz and Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin.
  4. As the curtain rises on the Straz Center's biggest shows, the spotlight is on parking


    TAMPA — The Broadway Series, the most lucrative shows of the year for the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, start this week, and this year the center wants all the drama to take place on stage, not during the drive to the theater.

    With downtown Tampa getting busier at night and on weekends, city officials and administrators from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts have been working on ways to unsnarl traffic and help visitors find parking when there are lots of events at the same time. CHRIS ZUPPA   |   Times (2009)

  5. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
Casimar Naiboa pleads for help to capture the killer of his son, Anthony Naiboa. Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed near 15th Street N. and E. Frierson Avenue after getting off the wrong bus in Seminole Heights. A peaceful march that began on east New Orleans Avenue was held during the candlelight vigil for the three victims who were killed in the recent shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday, October 22, 2017.