September 2005: MSNBC.com has obtained an exclusive interview with one of America’s newest class of criminals — the downloader.
Convicted of illegally downloading and trading rock and hip-hop music, “Johnny Payless” (his name is changed to protect his identity) is one of the Internet users caught up in the recording industry’s ongoing crackdown on Internet piracy. Now serving a 100-year sentence at a Supermax prison in the Midwest, Payless offers a cautionary tale — in his own words.
He shuffles into an interview room under the weight of ankle irons, adorned in the obligatory bright-orange prison-issue jumpsuit. He speaks in a low-key monotone, wary of those around him listening.
He is “Johnny Payless,” a young, bright, personable man somewhere between 25 and 30 years old — a man whose future has come undone by his having run afoul of the , the music industry’s largest trade group, which in September 2003 filed more than 200 copyright-infringement lawsuits across the country — the opening salvo in a war that still goes on.
MSNBC: What are you in for?
Payless: Me, I’m facing hard time for appropriating hard rock. I’m looking down the barrel of a $200,000 fine for stealing 50 Cent. It was all so simple — the technology was right there, asking to be used.
MSNBC: Didn’t you know the recording industry has been getting more and more aggressive about lawsuits against those who take music without paying for it?
Payless: I’d heard about it for years, even read stories in the news. But I never thought I was gonna be in their sights. Hell, I’ve got a library of maybe 100 songs — I’m small fry. Or so I thought.
MSNBC: What upsets you about this the most?
Payless: What makes me angry is that they’re not even making a distinction anymore between the volume players — the ones pulling hundreds and hundreds of songs at a rip — and the little players like me. I was never planning to sell them, they were for my own private use. It’s nuts.
MSNBC: So what’s life like in here?
Payless: Not much fun, that’s for sure. Incredibly tight security. And the place is getting more and more populated every day. Just last week they added five new prisoners on the tier. One was only 12 years old; they caught him downloading “Happy Birthday” for his younger sister. Wham! 25 years, just like that. Someone else got caught on visitors day, trying to sneak an MP3 file inside a cake. Fifty years at the drop of a gavel.
MSNBC: Maybe you’ve heard — the lawsuits have led to some new legislation ...
Payless: Oh yeah, the Copyright Attorneys’ Full Employment Act. I’m glad somebody’s getting ahead with all this.
MSNBC: What are your options now?
Payless: Well, not many. My lawyer’s started a legal defense fund for me. I understand I can get a pardon if I sign a loyalty oath to the recording industry, and agree to do community service at a Tower Records store. We’ll see, but it all seems a bit heavy-handed to me.
MSNBC: Any advice to other music fans?
Payless: If you love music and technology, get a lawyer. And if you download music ... trust me: Don’t take the rhyme if you can’t do the time.