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Downloading on the Down Low

Record companies sue dozens in NC

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Come on, admit it. You have illegally downloaded music on your computer. Just a few songs, right. . . or maybe a few hundred? If you'd rather download Celine Dion screeching "Because You Love Me" than endure the embarrassment of buying her record at a hip music store, it's OK: Those stories of grandmas and college students getting dragged into court for taking a few 50 Cent songs off the Internet are ever-more-distant tales that happened to other people.

Or are they? At least a few dozen North Carolinians are finding out otherwise, some as recently as last month. Behemoth record companies have sued more than three dozen people in the state since January, including several Charlotte residents. Some of those were snagged by the record industry's latest round of lawsuits in July, when more than 700 people nationwide were served papers.

"It didn't seem real," said a 52-year-old Charlotte woman, a healthcare staffer who requested anonymity because her case is still in the courts. "Everybody that I talked to, they were just like, 'I wouldn't respond to that.'"

But soon she was convinced it was real. Now she hopes her lawyer makes the major labels understand that other people infiltrated her computer with hundreds of songs by artists she doesn't like. Just as they commandeered her computer to send out thousands, if not millions, of spam messages that forced her to buy a new machine.

"I know [the record industry] wants me to pay a fine, but you know what? I'm not going to do it," she said.

It's not that she's never downloaded a song, she said. "Hardly anyone you talk to has never done this," she said. "It's like everyone has something on their computer, to some extent. Everyone, everyone."

If this woman is unwilling to settle, she won't be alone. Since September 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America has filed lawsuits against more than 14,000 people it said were illegally downloading copyrighted music and taking money out of musicians' -- or at least record companies' -- pockets. So far the RIAA has settled only about 3,200 of those cases.

One person who settled was Jeff Conard, a teacher of computer courses at an Asheville high school. Conard said he and his wife paid more than $3,000 after his 15-year-old son, Jarrod, acknowledged he had downloaded music to their home computer. Conard doesn't believe it was fair for him to be held accountable for his son's actions but paid anyway. Still, the lesson seems lost on his son's friends. "I just try to warn them, 'If you get caught, you're gonna pay,'" he said.

The lawsuits seem to have chilled some people's willingness to use peer-to-peer (P2P) networks such as KaZaa or Morpheus. According to a March study by the non-profit Pew Internet & American Life Project, 41 percent of people who downloaded music admitted to using P2P networks to get music or video.

In February 2004, 58 percent of downloaders said they used such networks to get music. Many said the record industry's suits stalled their enthusiasm for P2P downloads. The US Supreme Court ruled in June against Grokster and StreamCast Networks, two publishers of peer-to-peer file-sharing software. The decision was a boon for the record industry.

But is the music industry any match for industrious computer geeks and audiophiles?

Some downloaders are exploring ways to get around watchful eyes with software like Freenet, which purportedly lets users operate online in anonymity. And if the Pew report is any indication, public support is on the side of illegal downloaders. More than half of Internet users said the file-sharing networks should be deemed responsible for pirating music and movie files, while less than one in five respondents thought individuals should be held responsible.

Jenni Engebretsen, communications director for the RIAA, said in an e-mail that the recording industry is focusing on "egregious offenders" who are "downloading hundreds or thousands of files and offering them to millions of anonymous users." But people who download and don't upload (meaning they take songs from other computer users but don't give out their own files) aren't immune from legal woes, as some have assumed. Engebretsen referred to a recent case in which a Chicago downloader was ordered to pay up. "Bottom line: Anyone engaged in the theft of music should remain on notice that you can be caught and there are consequences for your illegal actions," she said.

Would you pay $3,000 for these songs?

North Carolinians are being sued for downloading the following songs, among others. Who said this was a musically aware state?

• Bryan Adams, "Please Forgive Me"

• Lonestar, "I'm Already There"

• Celine Dion, "Because You Loved Me"

• Teena Marie, "Dear Lover"

• Michael Jackson, "Black or White"

• Matchbox 20, "Real World"

• Kenny Chesney, "The Good Stuff"

Source: US District Court files

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