"Here’s your dorm key and your RIAA bill…"


RIAA institutes collective billing practices? -

If you managed to miss this week’s RIAA wrangling, you probably don’t use the internet.  Here’s the skinny: The RIAA has sent 405 so-called “pre-litigation” e-mails in various quantities to a group of 23 selected universities.  The RIAA has asked each university to identify and pass on the appropriate e-mail to the appropriate student.

As I thought about this, a couple questions have come to mind.  One, what is the difference between a letter that specifies a fiscal responsibility and a “bill”?  Two, is a public institution legally allowed to serve a bill on behalf of an outside party?

Is it a settlement, or a bill? -

The RIAA calls the e-mail a “pre-litigation letter”… I call it a “bill”.  There could be a special legal definition here I am unaware of, but to me, it seems like a bill.  You could say that your electric bill is a “pre-litigation letter”… if you choose not to pay, they have the right to sue you.

But if the RIAA notices are a “bill”… that may put the RIAA into a whole new legal frying pan.  It’s one thing to litigate on behalf of a group, it’s another to engage in collective billing.  Does this make the RIAA a company in and of itself?  Who chooses the prices?  How does it pay taxes, etc…

We’ll let the lawyers figure it out.

“I am not pleased that taxpayer money is being used to deliver bills on behalf of the RIAA.”

Compelling students to comply -

Universities have to deal with a little thing called FERPA, or the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.  This is the law that requires institutions to protect student information.  A university cannot, for example, disclose the name of a student who was using a particular IP address at a particular time without a valid subpoena or permission of the student.  Now note, universities have not been complicit in file sharing activities, despite the assertions of the RIAA… they have simply been dealing with the problem as the RIAA sends complaints about specific activity they believe is infringing.  Usually, this results in threats of expulsion for misusing university resources as stipulated by university policy.

This time, however, the stage is set for some unusual legal wrangling.

Let’s say that a university delivers an e-mail from the RIAA to a student.  The letter instructs the student to contact a 3rd party and identify themselves.  They will have the option to pay the “bill” by credit card or other mechanism.  By the university legitimizing such instructions to identify oneself to a 3rd party, it seems reasonable to think that a university would be in a bit of a FERPA quagmire.  Perhaps not in specific breach, but at least in breach of the spirit of the law.

Again, we’ll let the lawyers figure it out.

Doing the right thing? -

Two of the universities on the list have made bold moves.  The University of Wisconsin gave the RIAA the collective finger by choosing to not forward such emails on to the students without a valid subpoena, as has always been the accepted practice.  The University of Nebraska, on the other hand, is exercising its right… nay… responsibility… to charge the RIAA for the processing work incurred by delivering the RIAA’s bills… and has notified the RIAA that it does not keep records of which computer uses which IP address past 30 days.  The assumption, of course, is that if the RIAA’s information is a little stale, most of the e-mails will not be able to be served as there will be no way to identify the infringer.

These two universities, currently, are the exception… but that may change with the first student who receives a notice, particularly if it’s by mistake, and feels that a university has overstepped its bound by compelling them to call the RIAA and identify themselves.

Sympathies, not empathies -

As someone who creates copyrighted content, I am not condoning copyright infringement… I would like to be paid for my work like anyone else.  This position, however, is NOT in conflict with my stance against the practices of the RIAA, which I’m not sure can be characterized in any other way than “anti-competitive” and “extortionist”.  This has resulted in legal actions that aren’t just “innocent accidents”, but some of the most ludicrously moronic abuses of the legal system in this, or any other age.  The RIAA is getting a free ride to harass the public with impunity, where other copyright holders have to meet a higher standard to protect their content.  Getting public institutions to bill for you is just one of the ways this is expressed.

I am not pleased that taxpayer money is being used to deliver bills on behalf of the RIAA.  As such I am pleased with the University of Wisconsin’s responsibility in the matter…. and that the University of Nebraska is making sure there is at least some cost recovery in response to the abuse.

Of course, if you’re really pissed, consider Gizmodo’s RIAA Boycott

Should be an interesting couple months.

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