Coleman Hits Copyright Infringement Penalties

Sen. Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.) has added copyright infringement penalties to his laundry list of complaints about the music industry’s litigation campaign against individual file swappers, telling reporters Thursday he will introduce legislation to reduce the current range of $750 to $150,000 fines per downloaded song.

Coleman, who chaired a hearing Tuesday on the impact of peer-to-peer (P2P) technology on the music industry, said the fines are unreasonable and force accused infringers into settling lawsuits when they might otherwise consider contesting the allegations.

On Sept. 8, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed 261 infringement suits against individual downloaders. Since then, the RIAA has announced 64 settlements. All were accused of illegally downloading more than 1,000 songs through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.

The amount of the settlements were not disclosed by the RIAA, but an earlier settlement with the parents of a 12-year-old accused of illegally downloading music files was $2,000, and at the Tuesday hearing, Lorraine Sullivan, one of the people caught in the RIAA digital dragnet, said she settled for $2,500 after the RIAA initially sought $3,500.

In August, Coleman sent a letter to the RIAA expressing concern that the music industry 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 Judiciary Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations in response to his letter “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.

The RIAA obtained the names of all 261 people it sued through more than 1,600 DMCA subpoenas, which allow copyright holders to issue subpoenas to Internet service providers (ISPs) demanding the name, address and telephone numbers of ISP subscribers suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted material.

Unlike usual subpoenas, DMCA subpoenas can be filed prior to any charges of infringement, are not subject to a review by a judge, and requires no notice to, or opportunity to be heard by, the alleged infringer.

While Coleman said he would introduce his legislation to reduce copyright infringement penalties this year, it is very unlikely Congress will take any action before next year, if then. Lawmakers appear to be reluctant to change the provisions of the 1998 DMCA.

In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith (R.-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, recently said that chamber was not likely to hold any hearings on the issue.

In the Senate, Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) has introduced legislation directly aimed at curbing the RIAA’s use of the subpoenas. Brownback’s bill requires the owners of digital media products to file an actual case in a court of law in order to obtain the identifying information of an ISP’s subscriber. Brownback’s bill received lukewarm support

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