LOS ANGELES—The Recording Industry Association of America filed a $7.1 billion lawsuit against the nation's radio stations Monday, accusing them of freely distributing copyrighted music.

RIAA president Hilary Rosen and attorney Russell Frackman answer questions in a Los Angeles courthouse.

"It's criminal," RIAA president Hilary Rosen said. "Anyone at any time can simply turn on a radio and hear a copyrighted song. Making matters worse, these radio stations often play the best, catchiest song off the album over and over until people get sick of it. Where is the incentive for people to go out and buy the album?"

According to Rosen, the radio stations acquire copies of RIAA artists' CDs and then broadcast them using a special transmitter, making it possible for anyone with a compatible radio-wave receiver to listen to the songs.

"These radio stations are extremely popular," Rosen said. "They flagrantly string our songs together in 'uninterrupted music blocks' of up to 70 minutes in length, broadcasting nearly one CD's worth of product without a break, and they actually have the gall to allow businesses to advertise between songs. It's bad enough that they're giving away our music for free, but they're actually making a profit off this scheme."

RIAA attorney Russell Frackman said the lawsuit is intended to protect the artists.

"If this radio trend continues, it will severely damage a musician's ability to earn a living off his music," Frackman said. "[Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich stopped in the other day wondering why his last royalty check was so small, and I didn't know what to say. How do you tell a man who's devoted his whole life to his music that someone is able to just give it away for free? That pirates are taking away his right to support himself with his craft?"

For the record companies and the RIAA, one of the most disturbing aspects of the radio-station broadcasts is that anyone with a receiver and an analog tape recorder can record the music and play it back at will.

"I've heard reports that children as young as 8 tape radio broadcasts for their own personal use," Rosen said. "They listen to a channel that has a limited rotation of only the most popular songs—commonly called 'Top 40' stations—then hit the 'record' button when they hear the opening strains of the song they want. And how much are they paying for these songs? A big fat zip."

One of the hundreds of radio stations being sued for distributing copyrighted music.

Continued Rosen: "According to our research, there is one of these Top 40 stations in every major city in the country. This has to be stopped before the music industry's entire economic infrastructure collapses."

Especially distressing to the RIAA are radio stations' "all-request hours," when listeners call in to ask radio announcers, or "disc jockeys," to play a certain song.

"What's the point of putting out a new Ja Rule or Sum 41 album if people can just call up and hear any song off the album that they want?" Frackman asked. "In some instances, these stations actually have the nerve to let the caller 'dedicate' his act of thievery to a friend or lover. Could you imagine a bank letting somebody rob its vaults and then allowing the thief to thank his girlfriend Tricia and the whole gang down at Bumpy's?"

Defenders of radio-based music distribution insist that the relatively poor sound quality of radio broadcasts negates the record companies' charges.

"Radio doesn't have the same sound quality as a CD," said Paul "Cubby" Bryant, music director of New York radio station Z100, one of the nation's largest distributors of free music and a defendant in the suit. "Real music lovers will still buy CDs. If anything, we're exposing people to music they might not otherwise hear. These record companies should be thanking us, not suing us."

Outraged by the RIAA suit, many radio listeners are threatening to boycott the record companies.

"All these companies care about is profits," said Amy Legrand, 21, an avid Jacksonville, FL, radio user who surreptitiously records up to 10 songs a day off the radio. "Top 40 radio is taking the power out of the hands of the Ahmet Erteguns of the world and bringing it back to the people of Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting. It's about time somebody finally stood up to those record-company fascists."