Yesterday the Recording Industry Association of America (Riaa) filed suits against 261 file swappers across the US, seeking thousands of dollars in damages from defendants who have allegedly uploaded 1,000 songs or more to peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, like Kazaa and Grokster.

But as an olive branch to those who wish to avoid prosecution, it has also introduced a 'clean slate' amnesty program, whereby file swappers can repent their illegal ways, delete all the files they have downloaded and promise not to acquire any more.

The New York Times, however, cautions that even if the Riaa is happy to overlook their transgressions under the amnesty, by admitting to stealing copyrighted material they could leave themselves open to legal action by other copyright holders.

"Some public interest groups warned that if people identified themselves publicly as having violated copyright law they could be sued by other copyright holders, even if the record industry granted them immunity," writes Amy Harmon in the NYT.

The lawsuits are the first to be filed by the Riaa against P2P users, after its attempts to go after the P2P services themselves were stymied. On 25 April the LA District Court ruled that the operators of file-sharing services were not liable for any copyright infringement that may be happening on their networks. While the Riaa is appealing this ruling, it says that the decision left it with no choice but to go after the users of P2P sites.

The Riaa is looking for financial settlements with the accused file swappers and, while the NYT says that it could seek as much as $150,000 per incident, which would run into millions of dollars for these prolific sharers, on average it has agreed to much lower amounts of around $3,000 with those who have chosen to settle.

So far the Riaa has sent about 1,500 subpoenas seeking the names of music sharers, and this is just the tip of the iceberg as an estimated 60 million Americans use P2P sites to swap files.

The Riaa says it has no choice but to take legal action against file sharers. "Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," said Cary Sherman, president of the Riaa, "but when you are being victimised by illegal activity, there comes a time when you have to stand up and take appropriate action."

Figures published by the NYT do suggest that such methods will work. According to research carried out by Pew Internet and American Life Project, 67 percent of file swappers don't care if the music they share is copyrighted or not. This finding is backed up by a UK poll carried out today by Sky News. It found 78 percent of respondents didn't think song swapping was a crime.

So appeals to morals, such as those made by the movie industry probably won't work. But Forrester Research found that 68 percent of P2P users would stop if they felt they faced fines or prison time for their actions.

However, while strong-arm tactics may stop the swappers, some feel this is the wrong approach to the problem, and that instead of attempting to halt online music sharing, record companies should embrace it and attempt to find a legal means to exploit the desire to share music on the internet. Apple's iTunes service is one of many that has shown how keen customers are to get music on the web, selling 10 million songs since its launch.

"Instead of treating customers like criminals, the industry should look at what they want and find a way to offer it to them," Wendy Seltzer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the NYT.

Related links:
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Forrester Research
New York Times
Pew Internet and American Life Project
Sky News