Single Mother Overwhelmed by the RIAA Suit

Single mom overwhelmed by recording industry suit


Pioneer Press

Tammy Lafky has a computer at home but said she doesn’t use it. “I don’t know how,” the 41-year-old woman said, somewhat sheepishly.

But her 15-year-old daughter, Cassandra, does. And what Cassandra may have done, like millions of other teenagers and adults around the world, landed Lafky in legal hot water this week that could cost her thousands of dollars.

Lafky, a sugar mill worker and single mother in Bird Island, a farming community 90 miles west of St. Paul, became the first Minnesotan sued by name by the recording industry this week for allegedly downloading copyrighted music illegally.

The lawsuit has stunned Lafky, who earns $12 an hour and faces penalties that top $500,000. She says she can’t even afford an offer by the record companies to settle the case for $4,000.

The ongoing music downloading war is being fought on one side by a $12 billion music industry that says it is steadily losing sales to online file sharing. On the other side, untold millions of people — many of them too young to drive — who have been downloading free music off file-sharing sites with odd names like Kazaa and Grokster and who are accusing the music industry of price gouging and strong-arm tactics.

Lafky says she doesn’t download free music. Her daughter did last year when she was 14, but neither of them knew it was illegal because all of Cassandra’s friends at school were doing it.

“She says she can’t believe she’s the only one being sued,” Lafky said. “She told me, ‘I can’t be the only one. Everybody else does it.’ “

A record company attorney from Los Angeles contacted Lafky about a week ago, telling Lafky she could owe up to $540,000, but the companies would settle for $4,000.

“I told her I don’t have the money,” Lafky said. “She told me to go talk to a lawyer and I told her I don’t have no money to talk to a lawyer.”

Lafky said she clears $21,000 a year from her job and gets no child support.

The music industry isn’t moved. It has sued nearly 3,000 people nationwide since September and settled with 486 of them for an average of $3,000 apiece, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major and minor labels that produce 90 percent of the recorded music in the United States.

“Our goal in these cases and in this program (of lawsuits) that we’re trying to achieve is to deliver the message that it’s illegal and wrong,” said Stanley Pierre-Louis, senior vice president for legal affairs for the RIAA.

Since the music industry began its lawsuit campaign, awareness of the illegality of downloading copyrighted music has increased several-fold this year, Pierre-Louis said.

“And we’re trying to create a level playing field for legal online (music) services,” he added.

These services sell music for under a dollar a song, and some have become well known, like Apple Computer’s iPod service, which advertises heavily on TV. Others are just getting off the ground.

Pierre-Louis said the RIAA does not comment on individual cases like Lafky’s, but he said the music industry typically finds its targets by logging onto the same file-sharing services that the file-sharers do. Its agents then comb the play lists for names of songs that are copyrighted and that they believe are being illegally shared.

The record companies follow the songs when they’re downloaded onto computers, and they also note how many copyrighted songs are stored on that computer’s hard drive memory, because those songs are often “uploaded” or shared with others through the file-sharing service.

Since January, the industry has filed 2,947 lawsuits, most against “John Does,” until the record companies went to court to get names of the downloaders from their Internet service providers. Last month, the music industry filed 477 lawsuits nationwide, including two “John Doe” lawsuits against users at the University of Minnesota whose identities have not been revealed.

The industry is particularly keen on stopping people who keep their computers open on the Internet for others to share. On Lafky’s computer, for instance, record companies like Universal Music Group, Sony and Warner Bros. found songs by groups they publish like Bloodhound Gang, Savage Garden and Linkin Park. Also found were songs by artists Michelle Branch, MC Hammer and country stars Shania Twain and Neal McCoy, which not only were downloaded but also available to others to upload, according to the lawsuit.

Federal copyright laws allow for penalties that range from $750 per infringement or song up to $30,000 per infringement, Pierre-Louis said.

If a defendant is found to have committed a violation “in a willful manner,” he or she can be fined $150,000 per song, he said.

The record companies are willing to negotiate cases individually if someone says they cannot afford the penalties. So far, no case has gone to trial, the RIAA said.

Pierre-Louis said the RIAA isn’t afraid of a consumer backlash. “We’re facing a daunting challenge and we have to face it head-on,” he said.

Tammy Lafky is facing her own challenge. She said she doesn’t know what she’ll do. “I told her,” she said, referring to the record company lawyer, “if I had the money I would give it to you, but I don’t have it.”