This article was originally published by WireTap magazine.
February 25, 2009
Imagine you’re driving somewhere and an armored car pulls you over. The driver says, “We know you were speeding and the penalty here is a million dollars. We’ll take you to court and investigate your whole family–unless you give us $5,000 right now.” Sounds unfair, right? Kinda scary, maybe? That’s basically what the RIAA has been doing for the past several years over alleged copyright infringement in file sharing cases.
It went like this: You’d get a letter from the RIAA saying: “We know you infringed a copyright. If we take you to court, you could be fined US$750 to $30,000 per infringement and up to $150,000 in some cases. But we won’t sue if you pay us right now. We even take credit cards…”
The letters are misleading. File-sharing is legal in some circumstances but the notices fail to mention this fact. They also assert that the RIAA knows what you did, despite the fact that they’ve targeted the wrong person in hundreds of cases.
The letters are intimidating. Even if you’re innocent, who wants to go into court against a huge corporation, especially when the penalties are so high? But just as importantly, even if you did infringe, the punishment should fit the crime and shouldn’t be handed out by a private organization.
The situation stinks. As law student Jimmy Richardson puts it: “A huge, highly organized cartel, supported by an army of lawyers, is dragging kids with no monetary or legal resources into court and trying to extort money out of them.”
Richardson is part of a legal team lead by Harvard Law professor Charlie Nesson and students in his CyberOne class who are fighting back. Together they’ve launched a suit on behalf of BU Physics PhD student Joel Tenenbaum. Their efforts represent a trend toward individuals fighting back.
People are resisting the RIAA more than ever, possibly due to negative publicity generated by their extreme tactics. The RIAA’s recent switch, from suing individuals to going after Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may not be a coincidence. But existing lawsuits like the one against Tenenbaum continue, which leaves a twisted legal environment in place.