Heather McGough thought it would be nice to listen to music while she was working on her Gateway PC at home in Santa Clarita, Calif. So, a few months ago, when a friend of McGough's 14-year-old cousin told her she could get the Gateway to play songs, McGough told the girl to go ahead.
The teen girl downloaded software by Kazaa, a file-sharing Internet service. Kazaa let McGough grab digital songs by Tracy Chapman, Avril Lavigne, Norah Jones and Marvin Gaye and others and put them on her computer's hard drive for listening. Also -- and this is the part that McGough said she didn't know -- it let everyone else on the Kazaa network get a look at the songs on her computer and pick which ones they wanted. In the eyes of the music industry, she was an "egregious uploader" of copyrighted material.
Which is why she was one of the 261 song sharers across the nation sued Monday by the major record companies with the help of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the music industry's trade group. The RIAA is targeting what it calls "major offenders" of peer-to-peer digital song sharing, which it considers to be a violation of copyright law. Federal law allows penalties of up to $150,000 per copyrighted work, or, in other words, per song.
Like Kazaa members, investigators at the RIAA looked into McGough's computer. Instead of seeing songs they wanted to listen to, they found someone they wanted to sue.
Song sharing exploded into the mainstream in the late '90s thanks to Napster, which allowed computer users to download and swap songs for free. The music industry went to court to successfully shut down Napster, but other free services such as Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa sprang up in its place.
Kazaa, the most popular, had more than 7 million users in May. More than 60 million Americans engage in file sharing, according to companies that track Internet use.
"I watched the whole Napster thing on TV; I read about it in the papers," said McGough, 23, a single mother of two girls, ages 5 and 2. "I just assumed that if Napster was down, why would something be up that was illegal? I wouldn't intentionally put something on my computer that was illegal."
McGough received a copy of a subpoena in July from Comcast Communications Corp., her high-speed Internet service provider, telling her that the cable company had handed over her name and address to the RIAA, which reported it had looked into her computer on the afternoon of June 26. "I wasn't even home," said the auto repair shop office manager.
The next day, she took her Gateway to a local computer club where members erased the song files from her hard drive. It was only then that she found out that Kazaa's software allows others to see which songs she had. "I don't even know how many songs I had," she said.
Comcast included an 800 number in the subpoena to call for more information. But when McGough called it, she said no one knew what she was talking about.
"I asked for supervisors, everything," she said. "It's not like they weren't giving me the information. They didn't have the information."
The stories of the RIAA 261 are emerging across the country. Many defendants say they are surprised by the suits, that they were unaware that such song swapping could be illegal, or that they were ignorant of the activities of others using their computers, such as children.
The defendants included a 71-year-old grandfather in Texas and a father-and-son combo, ages 50 and 29. They include Boston area teenagers and adults, men and women from Los Angeles, and a Yale University photography professor.
More song swappers will find themselves facing lawsuits in the coming months, as the RIAA has promised to take legal action against thousands more, aiming at people who have made an average of more than 1,000 copyrighted songs free to other Internet users.
Critics of the RIAA's lawsuits have repeatedly said such vigorous legal action could lead to consumer backlash, further crippling an industry already suffering a steep slump in sales. Since the rise of Internet song sharing, sales of compact discs have dropped about 10 percent per year. The industry attributes the losses to piracy, but others point out that many consumers likely were driven away from record stores by CDs priced at $18.
The poster girl for such potential backlash appeared on the cover of yesterday's New York Daily News alongside a headline reading: "Internet Music 'Thief' Sued -- SHE'S 12!" Brianna LaHara, a Catholic school honor student who lives in Manhattan, used Kazaa to download songs by Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey, as well as theme songs to television shows, such as "Family Matters," the Daily News reported.
Yesterday, Brianna's mother, Sylvia Torres, settled with the RIAA for $2,000. In a statement distributed by the music industry trade group, Brianna said: "I am sorry for what I have done. I love music and don't want to hurt the artists I love."
Recently hired RIAA Chairman Mitch Bainwol said he is pleased that one of the first lawsuits was quickly settled.
"We're trying to send a strong message that you are not anonymous when you participate in peer-to-peer file sharing and that the illegal distribution of copyrighted music has consequences," Bainwol said. "And as this case illustrates, parents need to be aware of what their children are doing on their computers."
Wendy Seltzer, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposes the RIAA suits, said yesterday: "It's a disaster, PR-wise. Putting a 12-year-old defendant on the front page is not a way to lure people into the record stores."
Michael McGuire, an analyst with GartnerG2, believes that some form of copyright enforcement needs to be carried out, but added, "You've got to wonder at some point how many of these do you get away with before you get people saying, 'Hey, stop picking on children.' "
The RIAA represents the world's five largest music companies -- Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, BMG Entertainment and EMI.
As for McGough, she has two choices, as she sees it: Hire a lawyer, or "walk in there and try to defend myself against a multimillion-dollar company and say, 'Hey, look, here was the situation.'"