Dave Perez isn't much of a music guy.
The 56-year-old Eugene father of three says the only CD he owns is the soundtrack to the 1969 cowboy musical Paint Your Wagon, starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. Perez's family bought the CD for him as a Christmas gift because they didn't want him singing cowboy songs during family rides in his 2003 Toyota Camry.
"They'd rather listen to the CD than listen to me," Perez says.
All in all, Perez doesn't exactly fit the bill of a music "pirate." Yet last year, the Recording Industry Association of America targeted him and more than a dozen other Oregonians in its national Internet dragnet of MP3 traders. The trade association told Perez to pay more than $4,700 or expect a lawsuit.
The June 2005 lawsuit against Perez in federal court in Eugene does not yet have a trial date. But it contends that Perez downloaded or uploaded 699 files in the winter of 2003.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to defending digital rights, says fears of legal bills have driven most of the people snared nationwide by the RIAA to settle the suits or ignore them. Ignoring the suits results in default judgments that in Oregon have averaged about $9,000, according to court records.
Perez, who makes about $70,000 a year as executive director of the Eugene YMCA and as a part-time umpire, joined about 20 other defendants in cases around the country who are fighting back by asking the most basic of questions: How can the RIAA prove they were the ones downloading the music?
Perez denies downloading the music, saying, "I'd be the first one to step up to the plate if I did something, but it's hard to do that if you didn't have anything to do with it."
The RIAA finds pirates by tracking individual computer addresses on the Internet. Internet service providers like Comcast assign a unique Internet protocol (IP) number to each computer using its network.
The RIAA then subpoenas service providers to tell them which subscriber was assigned a particular IP number when its investigators witnessed an otherwise anonymous user uploading or downloading music, then adds that subscriber's name to a lawsuit.
"They get the guy who pays the Comcast cable bill, and you know who that is for nearly every household in this state? It's Dad," says Perez's attorney, Stephen Hutchinson. "And Dad is technologically incompetent. He couldn't download this stuff if he wanted to."
None of Perez's children, who were between the ages of 17 and 22 in 2003, has acknowledged downloading that much music. Beyond that, Perez and his wife, Claire, also say they have an open-door policy with their kids' friends, which Hutchinson says raises the number of people who could have downloaded the music to the Perez computer to upwards of 50 people.
"The RIAA and the record companies have tried to stretch the legal paradigm of peripheral liability to include parental culpability," says Charles Mudd, a Chicago trial lawyer who specializes in file-sharing cases. Translation: Mom and Dad are on the hook for Junior's Kazaa habit.
The RIAA declined comment for this article but has told other publications that parents are responsible for their children's actions, and that the association thinks it can prove with testimony and computer logs that the adults knew what their kids were doing.
Perez isn't the only Oregon parent fighting with the RIAA. Tanya Andersen, a disabled single mother from Tualatin, has been engaged in a legal tug-of-war with the association for more than a year on the question of whether songs were actually downloaded to her computer.
But company is cold comfort for Perez, who has racked up $20,000 in legal fees and now says RIAA lawyers are talking about filing lawsuits against his wife and two of his children.
"This is the same kind of thing as when you have a gun and somebody steals your gun,'' Hutchinson says. "They can do the ballistics, and they can track the registration, but if you're not the one who pulled the trigger, are you guilty?"