Smells like teen spirit: Music giants stop suing downloaders...but sign on Big Brother

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been waging an ongoing war against small-time pirates for half a decade now. By initiating large numbers of lawsuits, even against people who have illegally downloaded 10, 20, 30 copyrighted songs, the RIAA had essentially terrorized scofflaws into spending money on the big labels.

All in all, about 35,000 people got sued, but the RIAA never won a single case. Most were settled for an average of $3,500 because small-time users couldn't afford the mountain of legal expenses that the RIAA would send tumbling upon them. Downloading copies of songs through file-sharing software is outside the law, even if you just happen to be "trying out" some music and, conveniently, never get around to buying your legal copy. Still, just before the Christmas break, the RIAA announced it would end its campaign against mom-and-pop pirates.

The practice of suing individual downloaders, many impoverished students, was intended to make the world aware of of the damage of illegal downloading, but it quickly backfired and became a public relations nightmare for the music industry. Take the mentally ill 19-year-old girl who lost an $8,000 judgment against her because she was too sick to show up at court. Or the 65-year-old Massachusetts grandmother accused of downloading hi-hop tunes. (The RIAA dropped that one, but not before Granny totally lost her street cred.)

But did the RIAA halt the lawsuits because they made the industry look petty and unreasonable or because it never scored in front of a judge? Neither. The lawsuits were simply costing more money than they were bringing in. That's right -- -this sue-the-little-guy policy ended up costing the ailing recording industry even more money.