RIAA suits send message, says prof

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September 2, 2008

7:53 PM

The College of William and Mary recently complied with a controversial court order and handed over the names of as many as 19 students to the Recording Industry Association of America. The industry group plans to sue the students for illegally sharing music online.

In June, U.S. District Judge F. Bradford Stillman overturned a previous decision that had prevented the media trade group from obtaining the names.

“The College did receive the subpoena to release to the RIAA the names of current and former students who they said illegally downloaded music,” College spokesman Brian Whitson said. “We consulted with the attorney general’s office and complied with the court order.”

The RIAA’s settlement notices to College students have been for $5,000 or less, and at least eight students have made settlement payments between $3,000 and $5,000. However, legal costs will likely drive up total settlement values the longer a specific lawsuit is prolonged.

On two occasions last year, the RIAA sent settlement letters to the College, which the school promptly forwarded to the students whose IP addresses appeared on them. The College received 12 pre-litigation settlement letters last year and 13 more this year.
However, this year marked the first occasion in which the school was ordered by the district court to release names.

Whitson stated that without a court order, the College would not have released the names. He also said that the school followed in accordance with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that governs the privacy rights of students.

“We contacted the individuals prior to releasing their names so that they could have an opportunity to reach a settlement with the RIAA or seek legal counsel,” Whitson said. “From our standpoint, our involvement in this matter is over.”

Last year, the RIAA filed a motion for a subpoena in court to learn the names of seven students who had turned down the settlement request, but the U.S. district judge refused to grant the subpoena in July 2007, ruling that it was filed incorrectly.

“In effect, the judge is saying: ‘Not only did you cite the wrong law as the basis of your request, but even if this law is applied to colleges, you wouldn’t be entitled to the information anyway’,” blogger Eric Bangeman wrote in a article on Ars Technica online in the same month.

The RIAA, which has been working to identify and file civil lawsuits since September 2003, tracks violators through individual IP addresses, a code that is unique to each internet-connecting electronic device. The group then sends letters through the internet service provider to various IP address owners asking them to either settle or go to court.

The RIAA’s history of filing lawsuits has received media attention throughout the U.S. Last year, Wired Magazine, a publication that reports on the tech field, reported on the case of Jammie Thomas, a Minnesota woman who was ordered by the court to pay $222,000 for downloading a few dozen songs. The woman, a single American Indian mother of two, makes $36,000 a year. She is currently asking for a mistrial.

The RIAA has also come under fire numerous times from legal entities that say the trade group unfairly seeks out and sues individuals.

One dispute, reported in April by Bangeman, involved several
University of Maine’s law school students who tried to have the 27 UM lawsuits thrown out and also attempted to bar any kind of RIAA suit from entering the state ever again.

The College’s Wolf Law School Library director and professor Jim Heller, who specializes in intellectual property rights, said that the question in the RIAA case was whether or not an individual was liable for having music in a peer-to-peer shared folder.

“Are you distributing when you are putting a song in a folder that can be accessible by others in a peer-to-peer network? That’s the legal question,” Heller said.

Upon installation, applications like Kazaa and Limewire automatically create shared folders, into which others of the same peer-to-peer network can access.

“Either make sure there are no potential infringing files in your shared folder,” he said, “or disable the shared or uploading features in your [peer-to-peer] application.”

In addition, a Feb. 2002 RIAA press statement against a Gateway computer commercial said that an individual should not be able to copy CDs for any purpose.

“They’re going after two things: they don’t want you to take my CD and make a copy of it, and they don’t want people to do file sharing,” Heller said.

However, he said, there’s no excuse for an individual to share music with another.

“Personally I think that when I buy an album, I should have the right to download those songs for my own personal use,” Heller said. “But not for me sharing my stuff [with] you. The worst step is when you get into the [peer-to-peer] thing and you’re sharing it with, technically, the world.”

Heller also said the RIAA was not making money on these lawsuits and it was highly likely that the trade group was just trying to find a way to send a message.

“It costs them a heck of a lot of money to sue these people,” he said. “But this is exactly what they want. They want to be able to point to Jammie Thomas and tell you guys if you do this, you can end up like her.”

A possible reason, Heller said, for the focus of the RIAA on colleges was the fact that students were a much easier, influential target.
“Lots of sharing of music illegally probably happens among kids … and they all know that within a small group , every student will know about it within a matter of hours,” Heller said. “You have basically good potential defendants and good audience.”

In terms of the lawsuit process, it is likely that the RIAA will begin the process of suing the students for illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing.

Whitson also clarified the College’s perspective and advice to students regarding illegal file-sharing.

“The College routinely sends out notices and e-mails to students warning them of the dangers and legal ramifications of illegally downloading music — that there are legal consequences.” Whitson said. “We’ll continue to make students aware and educate them on this issue.”

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