RealTime IT News

Universities, ISPs Fight RIAA's Subpoenas

The music industry is on the warpath, but not everyone is taking the legal assault on online song sharing lying down.

One federal judge on Friday squelched the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) bid to target students who swap music online through their schools, and now a trade group representing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) is voicing its concerns.

A federal judge said the music industry is going too far in its attempts to garner student names at Boston College and MIT, as part of its ongoing legal crusade to stamp out online music piracy.

U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro issued his opinion on Friday, declaring that federal rules don't allow subpoenas issued in Washington to be served in Massachusetts.

The move came after lawyers for the two universities filed motions back in July to block the subpoenas, issued by the legal staff of the RIAA.

While Judge Tauro's ruling was a victory for the privacy of the individuals and universities, the RIAA issued a press release saying the decision was a "minor procedural issue."

Students and universities aren't the only targets of the music industry's wrath. The RIAA is vigorously pursuing ISPs.

The RIAA, commenting on the judge's ruling, said it "does not change an undeniable fact -- when individuals distribute music illegally online, they are not anonymous and service providers must reveal who they are."

It is not entirely clear what the RIAA's next legal step will be, but it is possible that instead of filing the subpoenas in Washington, D.C., it may refile them in Boston federal court.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that music companies can force ISPs to release the names of individuals, who are suspected of pirating music copyrights online, with a subpoena from any federal court clerk's office. That ruling is under appeal, but a decision on it has yet to be rendered.

But on the heels of Friday's federal ruling, NetCoalition, a trade group representing more than 100 ISPs, sent a pointed letter to the RIAA. NetCoalition Executive Director Kevin McGuiness told internetnews.com that his group's members are "very concerned about it."

"When you're a smaller ISP, you don't have the legal department to comply with numerous subpoenas, to conduct searches, and to provide extensive personal details of members in compliance with a variety of different privacy rules," said McGuiness.

McGuiness said beyond the administrative and legal headaches, there are questions about the information that the RIAA is providing to federal law enforcement in its complaints, which he fears will be numerous.

"How did they get the IP addresses, that they want our ISP members to look into, and how did they determine that there was a violation of the law?" McGuiness asked.

McGuiness said ISP's frequently are asked by federal law enforcement, including officials from the FBI, to look into the Internet activities of their subscribers from time to time, but the RIAA's legal strategy has wider implications.

"Most of our members are already complying with law enforcement, but the number of subpoenas imagined by the RIAA would dwarf anything that might occur under the terms of the USA Patriot Act," McGuiness said.

McGuiness, in his letter to Cary Sherman of the RIAA, said "valid concerns about downloading of copyrighted material should not be allowed to devolve into an attack on the legitimate uses of P2P technology. File sharing is not per se illegal, and there are countless incidents where the sharing of information is not only permissible; it is far more economical and feasible if done online."

"We are concerned that the RIAA's legal strategy -- using a subpoena process in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to obtain personal information about subscribers of basic Internet service -- may have legal and technical consequences that exceed the stated purpose of this effort," McGuiness wrote.

And it's not just the smaller ISPs that McGuiness represents. The biggest ISPs in the country are also up in arms with the RIAA's planned subpoena flood.

Verizon and SBC Communications are two huge ISPs, which have already filed court papers saying that the RIAA's subpoena tactics are unconstitutional, because they essentially violate the due process rights of each of its subscribers.

Earlier this summer, the RIAA filed more than 1,000 subpoenas in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia demanding that ISPs provide the identities of subscribers illegally swapping copyrighted music files.

SBC's subsidiary, Pacific Bell Internet Services, is reported to have fielded more than 200 RIAA subpoenas, and just last month filed a lawsuit against the RIAA. SBC argues the subpoenas have to be filed in the jurisdiction where the person resides who has the information being sought. SBC says it will not be complying with the RIAA subpoenas while its lawsuit is ongoing.