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Sue the Consumer: Digital Copyright in the New Millennium

 Charles Nesson and Sarah Jeong  
Product number:
January 2014
16 pages
Product Type:
Workshop-Based Case Study
Link to Faculty Author Page:


In December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America brought suit against Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing company for downloading music. With the new millennium came a spree of other suits against similar companies, with the RIAA often emerging victorious. However, the lawsuits failed to stamp out peer-to-peer downloading, which transitioned to open source software that could not be linked to specific software developers. The lawsuit spree didn’t end either: instead, the recording industry sued the downloaders.

This background note surveys the evolution of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing and copyright infringement suits, and highlights the plight of consumers in the United States’ rare statutory damages regime. Readers will become versed in the precedent cases, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the basic technology of P2P and torrenting. The note sparks readers to envision a future for end users and fair use of digital content.

NOTE: This case is an adaptation of From Sony to SOPA: The Technology-Content Divide, also available from HLS Case Studies.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify a systematic approach to problem solving when faced with an unresolved issue or new situation.
  • Understand how the U.S. copyright system works in cases of unauthorized downloads of creative works.
  • Debate the pros and cons of the current copyright regime.
  • Consider a defendant’s course of action when faced with a suit or takedown notice.

Subjects Covered

Copyright, intellectual property, statutory damages, peer-to-peer file-sharing, recording industry, fair use


Geographic: United States

Industry: Technology, Music

Event Start Date: 1984


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Additional Information

Case Studies in Cyber-Citizenship

The Problem Solving Workshop: A Video Introduction

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