We don't need your stinkin' amnesty!

File sharers scoff at the recording industry's offer of forgiveness for repentant downloaders.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published September 9, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

On Monday morning, the Recording Industry Association of America, (RIAA) the music industry's main trade group, announced that it had filed lawsuits against 261 people in the United States for allegedly violating copyright laws by using online file-sharing programs such as Kazaa.

The move did not come as a surprise; for months, the industry had been warning that it would go after individuals it suspects of trading songs online. But because the people being sued could theoretically face fines of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars, these lawsuits can't be good for the RIAA's already tarnished image. (Under U.S. copyright law, the RIAA can ask as for as much as $150,000 for each copyright violation.)

Perhaps to show that it wasn't the big bully file-sharers claim it is, the RIAA also introduced an "amnesty" program for people who have not yet been sued. Under the program, called "Clean Slate," file-traders can send the RIAA a notarized declaration that they will delete all stolen files from their hard drives, and that they will never again trade MP3s. If you agree to live a life free of Kazaa, the RIAA will not sue you; but if you happen to fall off the wagon, you better watch out.

After the RIAA's announcement, Salon surveyed the Web for reactions to Clean Slate. We e-mailed bloggers, Usenet users, people on P2P discussion sites and others who've been known to get a song for free every once in a while. Not a single person was willing to sign on the RIAA's amnesty program. Here are their reasons:

Eric Olsen, a blogger who runs Blogcritics.org

I would not sign it for several reasons: the behavior in question has not been clearly identified as legal or illegal. Of the four factors the Copyright Act lists that must be weighed in determining fair use -- 1) the purpose of the copying, including whether it is commercial or educational; 2) the nature of the work; 3) the amount of the work that is copied; 4) the effect of the copying on the market for the work -- 1 and 4 are very much up in the air regarding music file sharing.

I object to the RIAA scorched-earth legal campaign on virtually every level, and would see seeking amnesty as moral and legal capitulation and tacit acceptance of its legitimacy. File sharers aren't "pirates" or "thieves": pirates make illegal copies of copyrighted works and sell them on the black market. File sharers make no profit. Nor is it "stealing" in the sense that any property has been taken: it is still a very open question whether in fact file sharing may actually increase legitimate sales via exposure and experimentation.

It would be foolish to put myself on record as having committed a perceived offense with the very organization that most wants to maximize that action as an offense, and to commit myself to never again committing an act that may or may not end up being at least partially legal, or legal in a mutated form.

Lastly, without questioning the integrity and good intentions of the RIAA, the track record of database security is such that I wouldn't trust that kind of sensitive information about myself with any organization.

A 26-year-old tech professional in San Francisco who uses Kazaa, speaking to Salon by phone

It's 261 lawsuits out of several million file-traders in this country. To be honest I don't think that the RIAA is going to spend the time and money that it takes to crack down on these cases, and considering the frequency with which I use these services, the chances of any prosecution coming against me are pretty slim. And I think that signing an affidavit is only going to alert the authorities that I might be trying to evade to my intentions and my identity. ... I think it's [being sued] is real threat, just as being hit by a car is a real threat -- but I don't think it's very likely that they will sue me. If anything, the threat of a lawsuit would drive me to severely limit my use if these file-sharing services. But I would never throw away the little bit of anonymity I enjoy on the Internet [by signing an amnesty program].

Moonman, a member of Zeropaid.com, a P2P discussion site

Would I ever sign this? Never. Think about it for a moment, would it be good to have a written document saying that you have done illegal things in the past in their hands as well as a photo? I don't think so. These are just scare tactics. They are hoping people like college kids will use this as a sort of "get out of jail free card," when in reality they are only admitting they have done wrong.

A file-trader who talks about music on Usenet

Personally, I would not sign this amnesty letter. The RIAA is not a government entity; therefore, they are not authorized to give amnesty to anybody who has a case with the potential of criminal liability. This amnesty letter is more of a P.R. move than anything else. They look bad for suing some people; this makes them look like they actually care. Don't call it amnesty, it should be called a signed admission of guilt. This amnesty contract does not get you off the hook if you share, and people that have already been subpoenaed do not qualify. So tell me, what is the point?

Aqlo, another Zeropaid user

Reasons not to consider the Amnesty offer:

a) It makes your identity known where it might otherwise not have been, or might have been insignificant until you spoke up.

b) Having done so it fails to protect you from any criminal action (RIAA actions are civil, they have no control over real prosecutors).

c) It also fails to protect you from civil actions by any other body (such as the MPAA).

d) It greatly hurts the cases of any current defendants. If a multitude of people sign this document they each serve as witnesses for the idea that sharing is a crime, something that has not yet been adjudicated.

e) It encourages further harassment along these lines at a time when many questions are up in the air.

f) It does not apply to anyone who has already been subpoenaed.

g) It constitutes a waiver of many rights to which you might otherwise be entitled.

Under no circumstances whatsoever would I sign such an onerous document, there is no advantage in doing so which can outweigh the overwhelming disadvantages.

Lisa Rein, a blogger at On Lisa Rein's Radar

I would not participate in this program under any circumstances.

I don't feel comfortable with the privacy policy -- which has a pretty big exception, that the information would not be divulged, "except if necessary to enforce a participant's violation of the pledges set forth in the Affidavit or otherwise required by law."(Meaning if the RIAA receives a subpoena from another party.)

The RIAA doesn't have the right to give full amnesty anyway -- you could still be sued by the individual copyright owners/song publishers (like Metallica).

So they are collecting a big database of individuals that can be turned over to other individuals who will then sue the file-sharers anyway. And the file-sharers will have admitted to it, thinking they were getting amnesty. Forget it!

Mary Hodder, one of the bloggers at the Berkeley Intellectual Property Weblog, or bIPlog

I would not sign the amnesty, because I do not file-share (up or downloading copyright protected materials -- (I) used to pre-Napster decision, but not now), and because the RIAA does not represent all the parties potentially involved, and therefore admitting to the RIAA that you file-share is asking for more trouble. They say you can "wipe the slate clean" in their press release today, but that would only be their slate, nobody else's.

I would not sign because who knows what they would do with the photos and personal information they will collect. They are not a law enforcement agency, and as such, are not subject to public oversight. They are a private trade group, and have way too much power under the DMCA to subvert people's rights, without judicial oversight, as it is (the subpoenas are generated by bots and sent out without a judge or clerk checking them out, and they've been wrong in some cases, and may be or have already been wrong in more...)

I do think this program will push more people to DarkNet solutions, and will cause the two extremes (RIAA vs. people who hate them and don't care about copyright) to grow further apart, making it harder to get to reasonable solutions, that don't criminalize millions, like compulsory licensing or good, well made Web downloading services with reasonable prices and a great catalog.

Not to mention that subtle, nuanced concepts like fair use and the public domain get totally shot. As well as any perspective on the DMCA and why some things in there aren't quite right. The RIAA is just shouting loudest right now. It's kind of a guerilla war they will never win. Like Vietnam.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a graduate student at the School of Information Management and Systems at UC Berkeley

It reminds me a lot of what SCO is doing right now in their case against IBM and their quest to destroy Linux. That is, they are attempting to force upon people the belief that what they're doing is wrong through legal maneuvers and indemnity ploys. In the RIAA's case, file-trading of MP3s and in SCO's case, running the Linux kernel. I would not sign it as that would mean that I'm admitting that sharing music with the world is illegal... I happen to believe that sharing music with my friends (or even potential friends) is well within the bounds of fair use. This is all very similar to software "piracy"... that is people are "trying to protect their intellectual property" when they should be thinking about value-added services or non-digital materials that people would flock to purchase....

I just wonder what all the resources that the RIAA is throwing at this from a legal perspective could do if they were funneled to discovery of new talent or new distribution channels. They don't seem to understand that trading of their files "is a GOOD thing (R)". Exposure is half the battle... especially for the majority of little bands out there... Sure, the big manufactured talent gigs will suffer. But that's flawed design...

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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