Boston Illegal: Will the RIAA finally get what it deserves?

Harvard Law School is taking on the recording industry in a case that challenges the constitutionality of their legal tactics. So long, RIAA, it's been lousy to know ya.

Did you hear that? A long low howl from the depths of despair. Yes, it's the sound of the record companies sinking ever further into the tar pits. And, strangely, it seems to be coming from the general direction of Providence, Rhode Island.

That's the jurisdiction of RIAA v. Joel Tenenbaum, a case being heard in Rhode Island Federal Court.

The RIAA is seeking damages from Boston University grad student Tenenbaum of $1 million for allegedly downloading seven songs from the Kazaa network (at $160K per, they must be pretty good songs). There are several unusual aspects to this case, not the least of which being who's defending Tenenbaum and his parents, Arthur and Judie: Harvard Law School.

Professor Charles R. Nesson and students enrolled in Harvard Law's CyberOne program have taken on the defense. In an attempt to stem the abuse of the legal system by the recording industry, they've counter-sued Sony BMG Music, Capitol Records, and the trade group everyone loves to hate.

As I type this, a hearing is underway to

... address the recording industry's motion to force Arthur and Judie to produce their home computer so that it can be inspected for evidence of copyright infringement. The computer is not the device on which the alleged downloading took place, and Arthur and Judie did not own the computer when Joel lived with them.

According to the CyberOne blog, the RIAA is doing this

... not for the purpose of recovering compensation for actual damage caused by Joel’s individual action, nor for the primary purpose of deterring him from further copyright infringement, but for the ulterior purpose of creating an urban legend so frightening to children using computers, and so frightening to parents and teachers of students using computers, that they will somehow reverse the tide of the digital future.

Sounds about right. The CyberOne folks are also trying to win in the court of public opinion, and have started a Facebook group called "Joel Fights Back" that now boasts around 1100 members.

This case is about more than whether Tenenbaum swapped files online or the culpability of his parents. It's essentially Harvard Law picking a fight with the RIAA to demonstrate that its legal actions are unconstitutional. All I can say is, Go Crimson!

Alan Wexelblat of the Corante law blog notes that

RIAA v. Joel Tenenbaum may become the Cartel's English Channel. As you'd expect, Nesson isn't just trying to defend one student. He's attacking the foundations of the RIAA's entire campaign, as well as the constitutionality of the laws on which it is based. He's filed counterclaims, and is seeking to have the RIAA itself named as a defendant..... But we're still at the very earliest stages yet. My guess is that the RIAA will drop its case against Tenenbaum and attempt to get the counter suit mooted rather than try to defend on the merits.

Let's hope Wexelblat's guess is wrong and the RIAA fights this one to its own extinction. Couldn't happen to a more deserving group of reptiles.

UPDATE: The hearing scheduled for yesterday has been postponed to January 6 because Nesson, a Massachusetts attorney, is not admitted to argue in a Rhode Island court. (You'd think a Harvard lawyer would know that.) The judge also denied a motion prohibiting the RIAA from confiscating Arthur and Judie Tenenbaum's PC. Lovely, no?

Oh, what the heck, let's just vent. Tell me what you think about the RIAA, file swapping, and legal abuse below, or email me direct: cringe (at) infoworld (dot) com. I'll highlight the funniest and/or most venomous ones in a future blog post.

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