Sarah Ward was stunned when the record industry sued her for being a music pirate.
Ward, a 66-year-old retired schoolteacher, received a notice on Sept. 11 from the Recording Industry Association of America accusing her of engaging in millions of dollars worth of copyright infringement, downloading thousands of songs and sharing them with the world through a popular file-sharing program called Kazaa.
Ward was deeply confused by the accusations, which have disrupted her gentle life in the suburbs of Boston. She does not trade music, she says, does not have any younger music-loving relatives living with her, and does not use her computer for much more than sending e-mail and checking the tides. Even then, her husband does the typing.
"I'm a very much dyslexic person who has not actually engaged using the computer as a tool yet," she said in her first interview about the case.
On Friday, the industry group dropped its suit against Ward. A spokeswoman for the industry denied that any mistake was made in Ward's case, or any other.
"We have chosen to give her the benefit of the doubt and are continuing to look into the facts," said Amy Weiss, a spokeswoman for the music industry association.
"This is the only case of its kind," Weiss said.
But those opposed to the recording industry's legal tactics say that the case suggests that the methods used to track down music pirates are flawed. They argue that Ward is probably not the only mistaken case in the recording industry dragnet.
Cindy Cohn, the legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group in San Francisco concerned with civil liberties in the digital age, said that her group is talking with dozens of people who say that they have been sued but do not trade files. But some people are indeed claiming that the allegations are a pure case of mistaken identity.
That's exactly what Ward says happened to her. Not only does nobody else use the computer in more than a passing way, her computer, an Apple Macintosh, is not even capable of running the Kazaa file-swapping program. And though the lawsuit against her claimed that she is heavily into the works of such hip-hop artists as Snoop Dogg, Ward says her musical tastes run to Celtic and folk.
Cohn said it was impossible to say how many people might have been sued mistakenly, since the standard settlement with the industry includes an agreement not to talk about the case and most people are afraid to fight.
"They aren't willing to undergo the kind of stress and expense of being in a lawsuit against some of the largest corporations around," she said.
Ward said that she was fortunate to have several lawyers in her family, and a son-in-law, Dan Levy, who is knowledgeable about the Internet and the file-trading wars who put her in touch with Cohn's group.
"They picked the wrong little old lady to sue," Levy said.
"This case alone should put the record companies on notice that their method of associating Kazaa usernames with addresses is flawed," he said.