Maine law students challenge recording industry’s lawsuits

Posted Sept. 12, 2008, at 8:40 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:25 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge will decide whether a handful of Maine law students can fend off the Goliath music industry in a lawsuit over the illegal sharing of music files.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock on Friday considered a flurry of motions filed by third-year law students from the University of Maine School of Law in Portland seeking dismissal of the case. The school’s law clinic, under the supervision of professor Deirdre Smith, is defending two college students sued last year in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

The Recording Industry Association of America — the trade group that represents music companies such as Arista Records, Capitol Records, Warner Bros. and Sony — filed its first lawsuits against students in Maine about 18 months ago. In all, more than 100 Maine residents have been accused of illegally sharing copyright music.

None of the individuals who have been sued appeared Friday in federal court.

Robert Mittell of Portland represents seven of the defendants, listed only as numbered “John Does” in the lawsuits. He argued that getting the names of students associated with Internet protocol addresses violates the federal Family Education Right to Privacy Act. Mittel also argued that the way in which the RIAA had filed the lawsuits violated federal court rules of procedure.

The RIAA’s attorney, Katheryn Jarvis Goggon of Denver, told Woodcock that the association had followed the court’s rules and sued a group of students rather than each individually because it was more efficient. She said that other courts had upheld the RIAA’s efforts to obtain students’ names from universities.

Five years ago, the recording industry launched a litigation campaign against file sharing, claiming that it is losing billions of dollars to illegal downloading of copyright music. In early 2007, it targeted college students, claiming that much of the activity takes place on campuses.

The RIAA contracts with a firm that monitors peer-to-peer networks and looks for alphanumeric “hash” codes associated with various recordings, according to Billboard magazine. If it appears that a “hash” code assigned to a particular song is being shared, the Internet service provider is notified that one of its users appears to be violating copyright laws.

Many universities, including those that are part of the University of Maine System, have their own networks and, as such, act as Internet service providers. The RIAA has sent thousands of notification letters with settlement offers to university officials that have been forwarded to students without the alleged violators’ names being turned over to the RIAA.

When students don’t settle within an allotted period, the industry files “John Doe” lawsuits, seeking subpoenas that force colleges and universities to release their names. People who are found to have illegally shared copyright materials face fines of $750 per song and can be ordered to pay attorney fees.

A majority of students have chosen to settle. Most settlements range between $3,000 and $5,000, an amount that most often is less than the $750 per song fine.

Billboard magazine reported in June that the RIAA’s efforts had not been that successful at limiting piracy. It cited a study estimating that 19 percent of U.S. Internet subscribers age 13 and older downloaded free music over peer-to-peer networks. That figure reportedly was 20 percent when the RIAA began its user litigation campaign in 2003.

Since the user litigation began, more than 28,000 lawsuits have been filed against individual file sharers. In addition, more than 6,000 letters have been sent to university administrators, asking them to forward offers of pre-litigation settlements to the students that used university networks to illegally download music.

Only one case has gone to trial. A Minnesota jury found Jammie Thomas liable for copyright infringement.

Last month, a disabled single mother in San Francisco won more than $100,000 in legal fees from the RIAA after fighting the accusation that she illegally shared music files. She said it was false.

In Maine, there is no deadline by which Woodcock must issue his decision.

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