RIAA Extorting Students With Lawsuits
It is common knowledge by now that the Recording Industry Association of America (which represents the four major record labels in the United States), threatened by this new digital age in which music can be shared online and enjoyed freely without the confines of its antiquated and increasingly obsolete business model, has taken a decidedly hostile tactic to combat the proliferation of Internet file-sharing software: civil lawsuits alleging copyright infringement and seeking more than thousands of dollars in damages.
It should come as no surprise that last week the RIAA issued yet another round of threats to Internet users it claims are illegally sharing copyrighted music online, this time to more than 400 students at 13 different colleges across the country. What makes this particular batch of threats somewhat more salient to us is that some of them are directed at UC Irvine students.
Obviously, a few of UCI’s 22,000 students allegedly caught sharing music is not quite enough to make the threat of the RIAA’s crusade seem especially worrisome to most students here, but it does hit close enough to home that it warrants a closer look at the dishonest, ruthless and unconscionable tactics employed by them in a fruitless quest to counteract the horrible consequences of music sharing.
Since 2003, the RIAA has seen fit to file ‘John Doe’ lawsuits against alleged infringers, by naming the owners of certain Internet Protocol addresses they allege are sharing copyrighted files online. Because the IP address is the only information they can determine about any given user, they have had to subpoena Internet Service Providers for the identity belonging to each IP address, at which point they file lawsuits naming the account-holder as a defendant. Once named, a defendant must either obtain legal counsel (which few are able to afford) and try to take the case to trial, or settle with an absurd amount of money which is also likely unaffordable.
At least, that’s the way it is supposed to work in theory. It would be one thing if the RIAA had shown any interest in legitimately pursuing its complaints within the civil court system, presenting tangible evidence at discovery and allowing cases to proceed to trial if necessary.
However, their track record belies a more sinister motive. The RIAA has a disturbing tendency to pressure defendants into settling for the requested $750 per song shared, which easily adds up to thousands of dollars, and if that doesn’t work, they often drop a case altogether if a defendant tries to take it to trial.
That’s what happened in Warner v. Stubbs in 2006, when defendant Tallie Stubbs filed a counterclaim against the RIAA seeking affirmative relief (attorney’s fees); the RIAA dropped the case after ‘further investigation.’ It also happened in Elektra v. Wilke in 2006, when defendant Paul Wilke claimed that he was not the ‘Paule Wilke’ named in the lawsuit and that he had never used any filesharing applications, and filed for a summary judgment based on lack of evidence (which, if granted, would essentially end the suit in his favor). Their bluff called, the RIAA dropped the suit.
There is an obvious reason for the RIAA’s aversion to allowing any of their lawsuits to proceed to trial: Very little case law currently exists establishing the legal relationship between an IP address and its alleged user, which means that it is doubtful the RIAA would be able to gather sufficient evidence to definitively establish a defendant as the one responsible for the uploading. A defendant could plausibly claim that a family member or friend was using the computer at the given time, or that a hacker had broken into his home network and uploaded the files without the user’s knowledge or any other loophole that weakens the tenuous connection between an IP address and a single person performing a given action on a given computer at a given time. If even one court were to accept any of these defenses, it would make it significantly harder for the RIAA to make any future cases.
In other words, what they want is not courtroom victories or legal precedents favorable to their business