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Senator Launches Probe Into RIAA Subpoena Blizzard

Concerned over potential legal abuses, Sen. Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.) wants to see all copies of the more than 900 subpoenas issued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in its ongoing war against online file swapping. Coleman said the music industry trade group may be inadvertently targeting thousands of Americans.

In a letter to the RIAA, Coleman, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 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."

Citing provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (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.

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.

Coleman contends in his letter that the barrage of RIAA subpoenas is creating such a backlog at the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, that the Court has been forced to reassign clerks to process the paperwork.

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the D.C. District Courthouse is "functioning more like a clearing house, issuing subpoenas for all over the country."

Coleman not only wants copies of the subpoenas, he has also requested the RIAA explain the standard that the group is using when filing a subpoena, the methodology the RIAA is using to secure evidence of potentially illegal file sharing, the privacy safeguards RIAA is using when securing the information, and a description of how RIAA is protecting the rights of individuals from erroneous subpoenas.

The letter sets an Aug. 14 deadline for the RIAA to produce the documentation. The RIAA said it would comply with the request.

"The industry has legitimate concerns about copyright infringement. We are dealing with stealing recording artists' songs and the industry's profits. The industry has every right to develop practical remedies for protecting its rights," Coleman said in a statement Thursday. "Yet, the industry seems to have adopted a 'shotgun' approach that could potentially cause injury and harm to innocent people who may have simply been victims of circumstance, or possessing a lack of knowledge of the rules related to digital sharing of files."