Judge Layeth the Smackdown to the RIAA

You know those mass emails the RIAA resorted to earlier this year notifying college administrators of resident pirates and telling them to turn over their student data? Turns out that’s not so ok according to a US District Court in New Mexico:

It’s the RIAA’s tactic of choice: file John Doe lawsuits, file ex parte applications for discovery, serve the resulting subpoenas on the alleged file-sharer’s ISP to discover the identity of the person to whom the IP address was assigned, and then offer the person fingered by the ISP a chance to settle the copyright infringement claims without a lawsuit. The problem with the approach is that it allows the RIAA to do an end-run around the legal process, as the would-be defendant never gets an opportunity to answer during the John Doe lawsuits and fight the RIAA’s subpoenas.

The RIAA has argued that it would suffer irreparable harm unless immediate discovery was allowed, but Judge Garcia didn’t find that argument convincing. “While the Court does not dispute that infringement of a copyright results in harm, it requires a Coleridgian ‘suspension of disbelief’ to accept that the harm is irreparable, especially when monetary damages can cure any alleged violation,” wrote the judge. “On the other hand, the harm related to disclosure of confidential information in a student or faculty member’s Internet files can be equally harmful.”

Judge Garcia also notes that there is “no reasonable way” to ensure that prospective defendants are made aware of the lawsuits and requests for disclosure—which is exactly how the RIAA wants it. He wants to ensure that the John Does are notified and “are given a reasonable opportunity to intervene in order to stop the disclosure of sensitive information.”

Accordingly, the judge has ordered the record labels and the University of New Mexico to work out an “appropriate process” to ensure that individual Does will be informed that a subpoena has been issued. More importantly, those targeted will be able to respond to such requests to protect their own interests. The order directs the RIAA to contact the University’s counsel, inform them that it is seeking discovery and try to agree on a “fair and reasonable process that would allow Plaintiffs to identify limited information about the subscribers.” If they cannot agree, the court will intervene further. Interestingly enough, PACER shows that in the nearly four weeks since the denial of the RIAA’s order, there has been no further action in the lawsuit. An RIAA spokesperson told Ars Technica that “The court in this decision asked for a specific process, which we will accommodate. But in general, this is something—that is, giving notice—we definitely encourage all ISPs to do.”

This is a significant blow to the RIAA. If other courts decide to follow Judge Garcia’s lead, the litigation process will become a lot more expensive and time-consuming for the RIAA, as the John Doe lawsuits would no longer be simple open-and-shut cases. Those suspected of file-sharing would be able to ensure that their interests are taken into consideration from the beginning of the legal process instead of only learning that they were the target of a lawsuit once they receive a settlement letter.

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