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]