The RIAA is launching a new anti-piracy program to encourage illegal P2P users to settle infringement claims before the record companies file a lawsuit against them. The program begins today (Feb. 28) with 400 pre-litigation letters going out to 13 universities.

The new initiative will permit illegal file sharers to settle claims before being sued. Currently, record companies filed "John Doe" lawsuits against illegal file sharers because they don't know anything more than the computer address. For file sharers using a university computer network, the RIAA forwards a court-approved subpoena to the university to get the person's name. The RIAA then initiates settlement discussions. If not settled, the labels proceed with their lawsuit.

Under the new program laid out today by RIAA executive VP/general counsel Steven Marks, the RIAA will first send pre-lawsuit letters to universities, asking the schools to immediately forward them to students after identifying them from the computer addresses. If the RIAA hears back from the students within 20 days, the illegal file sharers can settle the suit for substantially less than they can if a suit is filed. They also avoid having their names appear in the federal court system. If there is no settlement, then the labels will file a federal lawsuit.

"Once again, we ask schools to be proactive and accept responsibility for students on their network - not legal responsibility, but moral responsibility," said Cary Sherman, RIAA president, at a press conference today in Washington, D.C.

The initial wave of letters being sent today are: 23 to Arizona State University; 20 to Marshall University; 37 to North Carolina State University; 20 to North Dakota State University; 28 to Northern Illinois University; 50 to Ohio University; 37 to Syracuse University; 37 to University of Massachusetts - Amherst; 36 to University of Nebraska - Lincoln; 31 to University of South Florida; 20 to University of Southern California; 28 to University of Tennessee - Knoxville; and 33 to University of Texas - Austin.

The RIAA also intends to increase its efforts at universities, pursuing hundreds of similar enforcement actions each month on behalf of major record labels.

The organization will also begin sending these pre-litigation letters to Internet Service Providers, asking them to forward the letters to the persons identified by their computer addresses. The letters to universities will be sent monthly, while suits to ISPs will be sent periodically.

"We understand that no deterrence or education program will 'solve' piracy. Our job is to provide sufficient oxygen for the legal marketplace to show its true promise," said Mitch Bainwol, RIAA chairman/CEO. "The theft of music remains unacceptably high and undermines the industry's ability to invest in new music. This is especially the case on college campuses, despite innovative business models like Ruckus' offer of free, legal music to any college student. Our work with college administrators has yielded real progress, and we're grateful for the help of those who have worked closely with us. At the same time, we recognize that the nature of online music theft is changing, and we need to adjust our strategies accordingly."