Music org's stern policy in jeopardy
A lawsuit recently filed against the Recording Industry Assn. of America could ultimately force the org to drop or dramatically change the way it uses its principal weapon in the fight against online piracy, according to experts and observers.The case — filed in Oregon and asserting claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act — details the RIAA’s alleged use of “illegal and flawed” methods when investigating people for downloading or swapping copyrighted songs without paying for them. The plaintiff in the case, disabled single mother Tanya Andersen, claims the RIAA was aware of the faulty methods but has nonetheless filed lawsuits against innocent people in some cases. Andersen claims she is not the only victim of such tactics and is therefore seeking class-action status for her suit. If the court grants that status, the RIAA could be facing a losing proposition because class-action suits can be extremely risky for defendants, in this case creating the potential for a big payout by the music labels. “If class action is certified, it’s more likely that the record companies would settle,” said Ronnie London, an attorney versed in class-action law with the firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, which specializes in communications law. Settlement could also lead to less aggressive legal tactics in pursuit of online pirates. The recording industry’s willingness to settle is far from guaranteed, however, given the nuanced variables of class-action suits and the RIAA’s contention that the Oregon suit is meritless and thus should be dismissed — an argument the org plans to make in a brief it will file with the court in the coming weeks. According to Andersen’s complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Portland, “For years, the RIAA and its member companies have been using flawed and illegal private investigation information as part of their coordinated scheme and common enterprise to threaten, intimidate and coerce payment from private citizens across the United States. As such they have clogged and abused the federal courts for many years with factually baseless and fraudulent lawsuits.” In 2005, Oregon resident Andersen received notice that the recording industry was suing her, claiming it had proof she had illegally downloaded and shared almost 1,300 files of copyrighted music. The notice strongly suggested that she agree to a settlement of $4,000-$5,000 or face prohibitively expensive litigation. Andersen said she had done no such thing and hired a lawyer to countersue. As the discovery phase proceeded, Andersen’s lawyer eventually claimed:
- MediaSentry, the investigative firm contracted by the RIAA to identify illegal downloaders, is not licensed for such investigations.
- MediaSentry and the RIAA have known “for years” that the investigative methods are flawed and sometimes result in cases of mistaken identity.
- An agent from the settlement company told Andersen that he doubted she was guilty, but the record labels “would not quit their attempts to force payment from her because to do so would encourage other people to defend themselves.”
- The RIAA repeatedly refused to accept Andersen’s offer that their representatives come inspect her computer’s hard drive until a court ordered the inspection — which showed the computer had not been used for any infringement.
- Persisting, the RIAA began to harass Andersen’s 10-year-old daughter, demanding a deposition from her and even posing as a relative when calling her school to get access to her.
- The RIAA finally dropped its case only after a court ordered it to produce evidence of infringement, which the org never did.