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RIAA: A Classy Act to Follow

April 5th, 2011

Yep, the RIAA really set a class act for others to follow, all right.

For years, the RIAA waged a campaign against piracy. Blaming piracy for revenues lost due to a slumping economy and their own poor choices, the RIAA successfully lobbied Congress to pass an intellectual property law with ridiculously bloated penalties. They then used that to threaten file sharers. Knowing that taking thousands of individuals to court would be unfeasible, they took a page from the satellite TV anti-piracy attempts from a few decades earlier and also accepted “settlement” fees, nothing more than extortion really, usually at $3000 a head. Targets of the campaign usually had little choice, as defending themselves would cost more than the settlement fees would–the classic nuisance lawsuit. That was the idea: the RIAA wanted to establish that file sharing could cost users far more than they were comfortable risking; it was the whole point to be scary and intimidating. They cared little for fairness, propriety, or even guilt or innocence.

Although they now claim to have ended their campaign, they established a dangerous precedent. Others with even less scruples than the RIAA are now using the tools the RIAA left behind not as a means of discouraging piracy, but rather as a means of simply shaking down thousands of people at a time for money. It’s not about protecting intellectual property any more; it’s now seen as a revenue stream for shady film producers.

It started with the producers of The Hurt Locker. They changed the game by altering the method of shaking people down: instead of suing file sharers individually like the RIAA did–expensive due to individual filing fees–they came up with the plan of suing thousands of people all at once in a single venue. This would still allow them to extort people for thousands of dollars apiece, but to do so more quickly and inexpensively. Where the RIAA probably lost money, these producers saw a chance to enhance the earnings of their films.

While the Hurt Locker suit was eventually dropped, it didn’t take long for really scummy B-movie producers to pile on. Soon enough, small-time producers of cheesy and/or pornographic dreck started employing ratty ambulance chasers to file legal extortion rackets of their own, jumping into the game with the same enthusiasm–and just as much legitimacy–as Nigerian scammers. Now as many as 130,000 people have been sued in these new mass filings. Often they are thrown out, but the producers hope that, before that happens, they can scare enough enough people into coughing up settlements that they’ll end up with a tidy profit.

I don’t think anyone expects any of the lawsuits to come to anything, but there’s money to be made by giving these people the choice between paying a certain amount as a settlement or paying more in legal fees to defend yourself–especially if the extortionists are able to sue people all over the nation from one courtroom, forcing 70-year-old computer-illiterate grandmothers in Florida to defend themselves in Los Angeles courtrooms.

In fact, one movie producer, the Camelot Distribution Group, makers of the widely-acclaimed Nude Nuns with Big Guns, is jumping into the game, suing nearly 6,000 people for tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, unless, of course, they pay the $3000 or whatever the scam goes for today.

The problem, in this case? Aside from it being a quasi-legal extortion racket? Camelot, it turns out, doesn’t even own the rights to the movie they’re trying to sue people over. That’s the level of scumminess we’re looking at now: scumball hack excuses for movie producers churning out pornographic trash using the court system to legally extort thousands of people… for a piece of fecal matter they don’t even own.

Thank you, RIAA, for setting the bar so low.

Speaking of the RIAA, a case going to court could, potentially, change the landscape of these scam lawsuits. One of the two lawsuits that the RIAA did actually follow through on is going to a federal appeals court, which will be asked to judge on the legitimacy of the vastly inappropriate penalties in the intellectual property laws–the ones that the RIAA bribed Congress to get passed. There’s no question that they are far too excessive; the question is, will the court, often setting aside its own moral outrage, treat this as a purely technical matter and refuse to recognize the impropriety of fining an individual $150,000 for copying a $0.99 item and sharing bits of it between other people.

The whole idea of the penalty is flawed: it holds each file sharer responsible for the downloads made by a large number of other people in the network. If all users were penalized, the payoff to the title holder would be vastly disproportionate to the actual value lost–if any.

Let’s hope that this court will finally do away with the outrageously inappropriate penalty and remove from these scumwad movie producers the weapon they’re using to extort people for fun & profit.

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