Record companies began sending users of online music-swapping systems instant Internet messages telling them that they can be identified and could face "legal penalties" for breaking copyright laws.
The record studios are giving the warnings directly to consumers only four days after a US judge said Internet file-sharing services aren't liable for copyright infringement when customers download and share music. Record labels and some artists say music downloads deprive them of billions of dollars in sales each year.
The warnings are going to users of the Kazaa and Grokster Ltd file-sharing services, said the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade group. Grokster and another service, Streamcast Networks Inc, last week won the ruling that said the companies didn't violate the record companies' copyrights.
"The court told the studios, you have to go after the person who stole from you. Apparently they are listening," said Michael Page, an attorney for Grokster.
AOL Time Warner Inc, Sony Corp and other entertainment companies sought to shut down Kazaa, Grokster and Streamcast's Morpheus system as they had successfully done with Napster Inc, a Web site that once hosted 13 million users.
US District Judge Stephen Wilson in Los Angeles said the file-sharing services can be used for legitimate purposes and aren't responsible for what individuals do.
More than 200 million people in 150 countries have used Sharman Networks Ltd's Kazaa Web site. The ruling didn't pertain to Kazaa.
The messages say, "It appears that you are offering copyrighted music to others from your computer. Distributing or downloading copyrighted music on the Internet without permission from the copyright owner is illegal." The message warned users they risk unspecified "legal penalties" and said "you are not anonymous and you can easily be identified."
"We hope to encourage individuals to take the necessary steps to stop stealing music," said Cary Sherman, RIAA president, in a statement.
An appellate court ruled in January that Internet service providers must reveal the identity of any subscriber suspected of downloading pirated songs and movies. The RIAA sued to force Verizon Communications Inc to supply the name of a customer who in one day transmitted more than 600 songs by the Beatles and other artists. Verizon is appealing the decision.
"That's the mechanism they will use to identify these people," said Jonathan Band, a copyright attorney at Morrison & Foerster LLP's Washington office.