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Senator: Beware RIAA's Amnesty Offer

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.), who earlier this summer questioned the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) subpoena process in its ongoing war against music pirates, is urging caution for those tempted by the music industry's new amnesty program.

The RIAA on Monday said it is offering an amnesty program for those who voluntarily identify themselves and pledge to stop illegally sharing music on the Internet. RIAA President Cary Sherman said the RIAA will guarantee not to sue file sharers who have not yet been identified in any RIAA investigations and who provide a signed and notarized affidavit in which they promise to respect recording-company copyrights.

"The newly proposed 'amnesty' is clearly a strategy by the industry to address some of the concerns I and others have had in this matter," Coleman said in a statement. "But, it raises new issues that require careful analysis and review. An amnesty that could involve millions of kids submitting and signing legal documents that plead themselves guilty to the Recording Industry Association of America may not be the best approach to achieving a balance between protecting copyright laws and punishing those who violate those laws."

At the same press conference, the RIAA also announced it was suing 261 individuals accused of illegally distributing copyrighted music through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Sherman said the lawsuits were the first of "subsequent waves of litigation."

"As I have stated before, the recording industry has legitimate copyright interests to protect," Coleman said. "The process they use to protect those interests remains a concern of mine. I will be announcing hearings soon to closely scrutinize the tactics, technology and laws used not only in the 261 lawsuits filed today, but also those that were used to target the more than 1,600 people subpoenaed to date by the RIAA."

In an August letter to the RIAA, Coleman said the RIAA may be in danger of abusing the broad-based subpoena authority it recently won in court to determine the extent of illegal file sharing in the U.S. and that its tactics may be creating "anxiety and concern" among many Americans who are "innocent or unknowingly guilty of violating copyright infringement laws."

According to Coleman, an analysis of the RIAA documents submitted to his subcommittee on Aug. 14 "clearly reaffirms" the industry's legitimate concerns over the "devastating economic impact of illegal file-sharing and copyright infringement."

But Coleman said he remains concerned about the potential for abuse of the subpoena process established in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and making sure the punishment for violators fits the crime. After an initial review of the RIAA documents, Coleman announced his intention to broaden his inquiry into how peer-to-peer file sharing networks operate. The hearings will examine the criminal penalties for file-sharing and the consumer protection issues involved in the usage of peer-to-peer networks.

Citing provisions in the DMCA, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled in January Verizon had to comply with an RIAA subpoena requesting the name of a Verizon Internet subscriber who allegedly downloaded more than 600 copyrighted music files in a single day.

Verizon immediately appealed the decision and asked Bates to stay his January ruling in hopes of maintaining the status quo until the appeal process is resolved. In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia supported the RIAA and forced Verizon to turn over the name. The case itself remains under appeal and is scheduled to be heard on Sept. 16.

Since then, the RIAA has issued a blizzard of the DMCA subpoenas. Unlike a usual subpoena, which requires some underlying claim of a crime and must be signed by a judge or magistrate, under the DMCA a subpoena can be issued by a court clerk without presenting evidence of a crime being committed.

The DMCA subpoena can compel an Internet service provider (ISP) to turn over the name, telephone number and address of a subscriber.