WASHINGTON - The recording industry on Wednesday sued 532 computer users it said were illegally distributing songs over the Internet, the first lawsuits since a federal appeals court blocked the use of special copyright subpoenas to identify those being targeted.
The action represents the largest number of lawsuits filed at one time since the trade group for the largest music labels, the Recording Industry Association of America, launched its controversial legal campaign last summer to cripple Internet music piracy.
Music lawyers filed the newest cases against "John Doe" defendants - identified only by their numeric Internet protocol addresses - and expected to work through the courts to learn their names and where they live.
The recording association said each person was illegally distributing an average of more than 800 songs online. Each defendant faces potential civil penalties or settlements that could cost them thousands of dollars.
The resumed legal campaign was intended to discourage music fans emboldened by last month's federal appeals court decision, which dramatically increased the cost and effort to track computer users swapping songs online and sue them.
"Our campaign against illegal file sharers is not missing a beat," said Cary Sherman, president of the recording association. "The message to illegal file sharers should be as clear as ever."
All 532 lawsuits were filed in Washington and New York - home to Verizon Internet Services Inc. and Time Warner Inc. and a few other prominent Internet providers - although the recording association said it expects to discover through traditional subpoenas that these defendants live across the United States.
The RIAA said that after its lawyers discover the identity of each defendant, they will contact each person to negotiate a financial settlement before amending the lawsuit to formally name the defendant and, if necessary, transfer the case to the proper courthouse.
Verizon had successfully challenged the industry's use of copyright subpoenas, one of its most effective tools to track illegal downloaders. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last month that the recording industry can't use the subpoenas to force Internet providers to identify music downloaders without filing a lawsuit.
The court said that copyright subpoenas available under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act "betrays no awareness whatsoever that Internet users might be able directly to exchange files containing copyrighted works."