A Scottsdale cab driver is set to fight what he calls the “conglomerate of conglomerates” in federal court this month in a recording industry lawsuit accusing him of copyright infringement.
With little savings, not much in assets and no attorney, Jeffery Howell, 46, has been fighting a civil lawsuit the Recording Industry Association of America leveled against him in 2006 alleging he made 11 songs available through his computer.
If Howell loses the lawsuit he could face a $40,000 fine, according to court documents.
But it wasn’t until The Washington Post published a news story Dec. 30 that Howell’s situation was thrust into the local spotlight.
The newspaper reported that Howell is alleged to have made the songs available through a file-sharing program on the Internet, like thousands of other people have done. Such programs can be accessed simply by having a computer turned on and connected to the Internet.
Howell is scheduled to return to the U.S. District Court of Arizona on Jan. 24 for a hearing that will determine whether he illegally copied and shared the songs belonging to artists such as the Eagles, Steve Miller, Billy Joel and Billy Idol.
Some of the multibillion-dollar companies listed in the lawsuit are Sony BMG, Warner Brothers, Atlantic Recording Corp. and Elektra Entertainment.
The lawsuit also alleges Howell illegally copied music from his extensive personal CD collection onto his computer.
Howell claims the copying was only for his personal use.
But the RIAA claims it is a “viral infringement” of copyright laws because the music is alleged to have been in a file that could be copied by others.
“I’m on welfare,” said Howell, a part-time cab driver, who recorded hundreds of songs onto his computer and downloaded them onto his MP3 player so he could listen to them during his shifts. “They have janitors who make more than I do. What’s the use of suing someone with no money? They’re going after people who can’t defend themselves.”
Howell, whose prized possessions include his CD collection and a broken down 1979 faded red Jeep Cherokee, doesn’t deny recording songs into his computer for his MP3 player.
However, he said he does not know how the songs showed up on a file-sharing program called Kazaa, and claims he didn’t put them in it.
“I let other people, such as my two stepsons, dozens of their friends and neighbors, use my computer,” Howell said. “The Kazaa program evidently made everything on my computer available to everybody else.”
During the last decade, soon after Howell was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash in 1998, he said he began recording music into his computer from his CD collection, consisting of such artists as the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd.
The song list on his 6-year-old computer consists of nearly 3,000 tracks. The computer rests on a shelf inside his small kitchen pantry closet, which is cluttered with paperwork.
Before Howell was sued, the RIAA had hired MediaSentry, a group that patrols the Internet to see who uses file-sharing programs and scans music from song lists that can be shared.
MediaSentry discovered the songs alleged to be available on Howell’s file-sharing program, and then the RIAA subpoenaed his computer activity through his Internet provider, Cox Cable, according to the lawsuit.
When Howell first was notified of the lawsuit, he said the RIAA wanted to settle the lawsuit with him for $6,000, but he refused.
“They’re basically trying to tell me what I can do with my own CDs,” Howell said. “One of the RIAA’s provisions that is usually glossed over is the fact that you are allowed to copy CDs your own for personal use as long as you are not doing it for commercial purposes and distributing them.
“A copy is something you can actually hand somebody — it has nothing to do with downloading or uploading.”
Ira Schwartz, a Phoenix attorney representing the RIAA in the case against Howell, would not comment.
Anti-piracy and copyright infringement are hot-button issues being led by the recording industry and artists fighting to define the difference between authorized and unauthorized use of copyrighted material. The increased downloading of free music off the Internet during the past decade has caused a decline in album sales, triggering artists to passionately testify before the U.S. Senate about intellectual property rights, according to industry executives.
CD covers always feature an FBI anti-piracy warning: Unauthorized copying is punishable under federal law.
“Thousands of people in the recording industry have lost their jobs because of the rampant theft of music,” said Liz Kennedy, an RIAA spokeswoman.
There have been about 30,000 lawsuits filed since 2003 against music fans alleged to have committed similar offenses, Kennedy said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group defending peoples’ rights in the digital world, opposes such lawsuits against music fans.
“These lawsuits are a bad idea,” said Rebecca Jeschke, a foundation spokeswoman. “They clearly aren’t working, because artists aren’t getting paid and it’s singling out people who download and share music. It’s time for the record industry to look past the lawsuits and come up with a solution that would get artists paid and consumers what they want without digital-rights management on it.”
Howell contends lawyers and recording companies are trying to make up the rules for copying music as they progress through the courts and are trying to play out the theme of a song he is accused of illegally sharing — “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits.
“I’ve spent a lot of time reading the fine print on the Internet regarding this stuff,” Howell said.
“I never used to need reading glasses. This is stressful. I can’t sleep. I used to spend a lot of time on the computer — now I want to quit the Internet and not get on the computer anymore,” he said.