A 12-year-old girl in New York, a professor at Yale University and an elderly man in Texas who rarely uses his computer have been included in the first civil actions against people accused of illegally sharing songs on the internet.
The Recording Industry Association of America said yesterday that the 261 people it was suing were "major offenders" who had illegally distributed an average of more than 1,000 copyrighted music files. But some insisted they had been wrongly accused.
Durwood Pickle, 71, from Richardson, Texas, said his teenage grandchildren had downloaded the music on to his computer during visits to his home.
Mr Pickle, who found out that he was being sued from the press, said: "I'm not a computer type person. They come in and get on the computer. How do I get out of this?"
Brianna LaHara, 12, on the Upper West Side, discovered she was being sued as she pre pared for her first day back at school. Her mother paid a $29.99 (£20) monthly service charge for a music swapping service called Kazaa.
"I got really scared. My stomach is all turning," said Brianna. "I thought it was OK to download music because my mom paid a service fee for it. Out of all people, why did they pick me?"
"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," said Cary Sherman, the RIAA's president. "But when your product is being regularly stolen there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action."
US laws allow for damages of between $750 and $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer.
Norm Coleman, the Republican senator for Minnesota, suggested the industry was being heavy-handed. "They have a legitimate interest that needs to be protected, but are they protecting it in a way that's too broad?"
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