When Shane Comegys was 16 he loved two things: his 1970 Mustang and illegally downloaded music. Given the choice, he'd happily take the car and delete the music, but the RIAA's lawyers didn't give him a choice. They took both.
In Comegys' mind, the classic muscle car was a steal at $5,500. A 1970 Mustang Coupe with a 351 Windsor V8 and a drag setup, it looked great in green with fat slicks out back and pizza cutters up front. Sure, it smoked and there were holes in the floor, but with a little work it was going to be great.
His collection of 1,940 illegally downloaded songs from artists such as Beck and the Stone Temple Pilots, it turns out, wasn't such a steal.
Downloaded using file-sharing service Kazaa, Comegys didn't think much about how the latter would affect the former until a two-inch-thick packet of paper arrived from a law firm represented the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
The letters, written in terse, anal legalese, outlined how Comegys had two choices. He could either write the record company a check for $4,250 or be sued for damages amounting to $750 per song, or a grand total of $1.45 million. Yes, his ass now belonged to the RIAA.
Excerpts From RIAA Attorney Letters
You shall pay to the Record Companies the total sum of Four Thousand Two Hundred Fifty Dollars (US $4250.00) by cashier's check.
Ignorance of the law is not a defense.
If you choose not to settle the case, then we will name you as a defendant and serve you with a copy of the complaint.
The minimum damages under the law is $750 for each copyrighted recording that has been infringed ("shared"). If a court determines you acted "willfully," the maximum damage award can be substantially more.
"We called a lawyer who informed us that we were pretty much fucked and that if we go to trial we will lose," said Comegys. "He told us that the RIAA doesn't want $1.7 million, they only want to make an example of me and that most cases are settled for less than $5,000."
Comegys and his family didn't have much of a choice. They'd seen what happened to other RIAA targets like Matt Chow who went up against the FBI's Cyber Crime division because of his involvement in what they called a "file-sharing ring." Chow ended up winning the case, but says the "personal expense for lawyers, travel arrangements and research was in the neighborhood of two V8 Audi R8s."
Comegys and his parents didn't have that much money. Although they didn't even have the $4,250 the RIAA wanted, they decided they had to settle. He now had four months to come up with the cash or face a penalty.
"I worked my ass off for the next for months trying to save the money, but I could only make around $2,000 from the part-time, after-school job I had at a local grocery store," said Comegys.
When the four months was up he was still short on funds and the Mustang wasn't running. With no options left he put the car on eBay at a drastically reduced price of $2,500.
"Thinking back I think it was too low because it sold within a couple of hours," said Comegys. "Within a few days two men showed up with a flatbed to load up my baby. I felt like I was selling my child as he handed me the cashiers check. Ashamed, I watched it towed off, never to be seen again."
It gets worse. The man who bought the car called a few weeks later to say the 351 was a Stroker motor and, once it was running, he was able to sell it for $8,000. Comegys had to work the next two years to pay off what he owed on the Mustang, even though he didn't get to drive it.
"People that are pirating media shouldn't think they are completely protected, there are always ways to figure out who you are and what you are transferring," explained Chow. "If you enjoy the music as much as I do you should have no problem taking $10 out of your wallet for the latest release at the local Best Buy or on iTunes."
Comegys echoes these concerns, even if he's still a little bitter about the whole affair.
"I know that downloading music through a sharing network is not a good idea. I don't condone it,"said Comegys. "I have learned from it, although I think that the way the music company sues random kids is 'fed up."
Sadly, Comegys is not alone. The RIAA has ensnared at least 28,000 people in its legal nets, including some who were innocent. And given the industry's tactics and the young age of the targets, many of these cases likely were settled at a much greater personal cost than the money the music industry is "recouping" from them.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Shane Comegys