Senator Says RIAA Subpoenas Could Harm Innocent People

Norm Coleman of Minnesota calls latest anti-piracy tactics a 'shotgun' approach.

Fearing that the music industry is overstepping its bounds in the hunt for online music pirates, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota on Thursday requested copies of the more than 900 subpoenas issued by the industry's trade group, the Recording Industry Association of America.

"The industry has legitimate concerns about copyright infringement," Coleman said in a statement. "We are dealing with stealing recording artists' songs and the industry's profits. ... Yet, the industry seems to have adopted a 'shotgun' approach that could potentially cause injury and harm to innocent people who may have simply been victims of circumstance or [who don't know] the rules related to digital sharing of files."

Hundreds of subpoenas have been issued to Internet Service Providers and universities in an attempt to get the names of file traders the RIAA suspects are illegally swapping music files. The RIAA has announced that it intends to file suit as early as this month against individuals offering "substantial" amounts of copyrighted music online, with penalties for each violation potentially ranging from $750 to $150,000 per song.

Coleman, chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, requested copies of all the subpoenas by August 14. He also asked for a description of the standards the RIAA use to file an application for a subpoena as well as details of how the group is collecting evidence against alleged file swappers. Coleman said he would like to see proof that the RIAA is protecting privacy and shielding people from erroneous subpoenas.

The senator's action was spurred in part, he said, by media reports of the RIAA targeting family members and roommates whose computers were unwittingly used to share files, and a grandparent who is facing $45 million in penalties for downloading his "oldies favorites."

Coleman, who has admitted to using Napster in the past, said his other concern was how the blizzard of lawsuits will affect the District Court in Washington, D.C., where clerks have already been reassigned to handle the mountain of paperwork.

"We will be pleased to respond to the senator's request for information," the RIAA said in a statement. "It will confirm that our actions are entirely consistent with the law as enacted by the U.S. Congress and interpreted by the courts. It will demonstrate that our enforcement program, one part of a multi-pronged strategy, is an appropriate and measured response to the very serious problem of blatant copyright infringement confronting the entire music community."

The RIAA statement also said that the number of songs listed in a subpoena does not reflect the actual number of files illegally distributed by that user, and that regardless of the amount that copyright law allows, the RIAA will ask the court to determine the appropriate amount of damages.

On Wednesday, the country's largest provider of DSL Internet service, SBC Communications, filed suit against the RIAA in San Francisco's Federal District Court. "We think their misapplication of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) subpoena powers in this case pose a serious threat to the privacy of our customers," said SBC spokesperson Larry Meyer, whose company has nearly 3 million DSL subscribers.

More than 200 of SBC's customers have been targeted by the subpoenas so far, he said. The subpoenas request that SBC go through its records and give up the identities of the targeted swappers, who are identified only by their screen names or Internet addresses.

In a statement, the RIAA said the issues SBC is raising — the "overly broad" nature of the subpoenas and the legitimacy of filing them in Washington and not California — have already been rejected twice in federal court during previous actions by other ISPs.

"It's unfortunate that they have chosen to litigate this, unlike every other ISP which has complied with their obligations under the law," read the RIAA statement. "We had previously reached out to SBC to discuss this matter but had been rebuked. This procedural gambit will not ultimately change the underlying fact that when individuals engage in copyright infringement on the Internet, they are not anonymous and service providers must reveal who they are."

SBC's Meyer denied that the company had rejected the RIAA's efforts to discuss the issue but said he could not elaborate. The company is seeking a jury trial to resolve the dispute.

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.