Q. My daughter at college has just been served with papers alleging she has illegally downloaded movies off the Internet. First, is it worth it to hire a lawyer, or should we just pay the money they are asking for? Second, if she did this off my computer at home, can they come after me, too?
A. It’s hard for a lawyer to say “always see a lawyer” without sounding self-serving, but it is always better for any person faced with legal action to receive advice from a lawyer before acting. Under some circumstances, an attorney may not charge anything for an initial consultation, and all lawyers understand that you need to have an idea of your legal position and options before you can decide if you want to hire an attorney, and whom you want to hire.
But even when an attorney does charge for a consultation, the investment in professional legal assessment will usually yield a better result than your guesses or your friends’ advice, as well as peace of mind. The important thing is to find a lawyer who has experience in the appropriate area of law.
It is not generally a good idea to pay a demand without first trying to negotiate the amount of the payment. Collection agencies or lawyers are usually willing to settle for some amount significantly less than the initial demand figure.
Without knowing the specific facts, it is impossible to assess how strong a case they may have against your daughter. However, they are probably aware that she is a student and may have limited money or assets, so they may be prepared to settle for pennies on the dollar rather than risk winning a court judgment for money they will never be able to collect. In her case, the cost to consult with an attorney is almost certainly warranted. Whether or not it will be worth it to hire an attorney to represent you in this matter is a decision you will be able to make more comfortably after the consultation.
As for yourself, you are responsible for your computer and your Internet connection, and if you allow someone to use your computer and Internet connection, you may be liable for whatever they do. One of the questions you should ask the lawyer with whom you consult is whether it is possible to include a release for all purported downloads committed by your daughter on any computer in return for whatever settlement ultimately is negotiated.
This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. Go online to AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, 04402-1329, will be forwarded to the LRIS.