Each faces potentially devastating civil penalties or settlements that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
The Recording Industry Association of America launched the next stage of its aggressive anti-piracy campaign Monday, filing 261 federal lawsuits across the country. The action was aimed at what the RIAA described as "major offenders" illegally distributing on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each, but lawyers warned they may ultimately file thousands of similar cases.
One of the named defendants in the case was 12-year-old Brianna LaHara, who goes to St. Gregory the Great Catholic School and lives with her mother Sylvia Torres, who plans to fight the suit.
"For crying out loud, she's just a child," Torres told the (New York) Daily News. She paid $29.99 for the service three months ago. "If you're paying for it, you're not stealing it, so what is this all about."
"If this was something we were profiting from, that's one thing," said Torres. "But we were just listening and sometimes dancing to the music."
Durwood Pickle, 71, of Richardson, Texas, said his teenage grandchildren downloaded music onto his computer during their visits to his home. He said his grown son had explained the situation in an earlier e-mail to the recording industry association.
"I didn't do it, and I don't feel like I'm responsible," Pickle said in an interview. "It's been stopped now, I guarantee you that."
Pickle, who was unaware he was being sued until contacted by The Associated Press, said he rarely uses the computer in his home.
"I'm not a computer-type person," Pickle said. "They come in and get on the computer. How do I get out of this?"
Yale University professor Timothy Davis said he will stop sharing music files immediately. He downloaded about 500 songs from others on the Internet before his Internet provider notified him about the music industry's interest in his activities.
"I've been pretending it was going to go away," said Davis, who teaches photography.
Another defendant, Lisa Schamis of New York, said her Internet provider warned her two months ago that record industry lawyers had asked for her name and address, but she said she had no idea she might be sued. She acknowledged downloading "lots" of music over file-sharing networks.
"This is ridiculous," said Schamis, 26, who added she is unemployed and would be unable to pay any large fine or settlement. "I didn't understand it was illegal."
She said the music industry shouldn't have the right to sue.
"It's wrong on their part," she said.
But CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen disagrees.
"It's a perfectly legal, legitimate way for music companies to try to protect their copyrights, and it is likely to have a chilling effect on those computer users who illegally download a lot of music," says Cohen.
An estimated 60 million Americans participate in file-sharing networks, using software that makes it simple for computer users to locate and retrieve for free virtually any song by any artist within moments.
"Nobody likes playing the heavy," said RIAA President Cary Sherman, who compared illegal music downloads to shoplifting. "There comes a time when you have to stand up and take appropriate action."
Monday's lawsuits resulted from subpoenas sent to Internet service providers and others seeking to identify roughly 1,600 people the group believes engaged in illegal music sharing.
"The industry did its homework, identified certain people it believes are illegally downloading music, and is going after those people in the hopes that thousands of other people who also may be doing this may think twice," says Cohen.
Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, has already promised congressional hearings into how the music industry has identified and tracked the Internet users it's suing.
"They have a legitimate interest that needs to be protected, but are they protecting it in a way that's too broad and overreaching?" Coleman said. "I don't want to make criminals out of 60 million kids, even though kids and grandkids are doing things they shouldn't be doing."
The RIAA did not identify for reporters which Internet users it was suing or where they live. Lawsuits were filed in federal courthouses in New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and elsewhere.
With estimates that half of file-sharers are teenagers, all sides braced for the inevitable legal debate surrounding the financial damage to parents or grandparents. The RIAA named as the defendant in each lawsuit the person who paid for the household Internet account.
The RIAA also announced an amnesty program for people who admit they illegally share music, promising not to sue them in exchange for their admission and pledge to delete the songs off their computers. The offer does not apply to people who already are targets of legal action.
Sherman called the amnesty offer "our version of an olive branch."
Some defense lawyers have objected to the amnesty provisions, warning that song publishers and other organizations not represented by the RIAA won't be constrained by the group's promise not to sue.
U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer.