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Internet Trade Group, Colleges Fight RIAA’s Anti-Piracy Campaign

NetCoalition, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing over 100 Internet Service Providers (ISP) and other Web companies, sent a letter late Monday to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), to express concerns over the RIAA’s online enforcement methods.

The letter is the latest round in the ISPs’ efforts to fight numerous subpoenas from the RIAA. The recording industry has issued hundreds of subpoenas seeking information on Internet users suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted songs through Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-swapping networks, such as Grokster, Kazaa and Morpheus.

“There are understandable fears among many in the Internet community that the real purpose of this legal campaign is to achieve in court what the association has not yet been able to accomplish in Congress — to make Internet companies legally responsible for the conduct of individuals who use their systems,” the trade group wrote in the letter addressed to Cary Sherman, the acting president of the RIAA.

In the six-page letter, NetCoalition Executive Director Kevin McGuiness expressed support for the music industry’s right to protect its copyrighted material, but raised questions about the RIAA’s tactics.

“Very little is known or understood about this initiative, how individuals are being targeted, what’s being done with the information, who pays for compliance, or how this information is protected,” McGuiness wrote.

McGuiness contended the RIAA’s enforcement tactics would essentially force its members, such as EarthLink and America Online, to act as the “police of the Internet” for the recording industry’s interests.

NetCoalition asked the RIAA whether it intends to compensate ISPs for costs stemming from identifying subscribers cited in subpoenas, and if the subpoenaed information would be used exclusively for the RIAA’s lawsuits against individuals, or if the RIAA would share the information with other entities.

The trade group’s letter comes a month after the RIAA — which represents music companies like Sony Music and Warner Music, among many others — launched a massive anti-piracy campaign to track down alleged violators of digital copyright laws.

Earlier this summer, the RIAA filed more than 1,000 subpoenas in the U.S. District Court in D.C., demanding that ISPs — such as Comcast Cable Communications, Verizon, SBC and its Pacific Bell Internet division, and EarthLink — and dozens of colleges turn over personal information of Web users suspected of copyright infringement.

NetCoalition is not the only group to challenge the RIAA’s campaign.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston College earlier this month requested a Massachusetts district court reject the RIAA subpoenas on the argument the recording trade group improperly filed the subpoenas. The two universities have refused to reveal the names of students accused of illegally downloading music from the Internet.

On Aug. 8, Massachusetts District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled in favor of MIT and Boston College, saying the subpoenas were invalid because the RIAA filed them with a court in Washington, D.C. The recording industry group in a press release called Tauro’s decision a “minor procedural issue,” but has not yet said whether it would resubmit the subpoenas in a Massachusetts court.

Commercial ISPs, like Verizon and SBC’s Pacific Bell Internet, have also taken legal action against the RIAA. According to court documents, the companies contend that the RIAA’s use of the “expedited subpoena” process — allowed under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — is unconstitutional and threatens individual privacy rights.

SBC spokesman Larry Meyer told the Online NewsHour the company’s Internet division has filed a more “substantive challenge” to the RIAA’s subpoenas in a San Francisco court. The date of the hearing has yet to be announced.

The DMCA “expedited subpoena” provision authorizes a copyright holder to obtain a subpoena from court clerks, without filing a lawsuit or obtaining judicial approval, and immediately compel the ISP, college, or other entity, to reveal the identities of Internet users accused of copyright infringement.

The recording industry, however, contends it is within its legal rights, calling the process the most effective tool to safeguard its copyrighted materials from Internet theft. The trade group has said the music industry loses $4.2 billion each year from “worldwide piracy.”

So far, NetCoalition is steering away from taking aggressive legal action like SBC and Verizon. Instead, the Internet group is pursuing a more conciliatory approach with the recording industry by calling for a meeting with the RIAA to mitigate its members’ concerns.

RIAA spokesperson Amanda Collins on Tuesday confirmed the recording industry group has agreed to meet with NetCoalition representatives to discuss its concerns over the music companies’ legal assault on file swapping.

“We welcome the opportunity to sit down with anyone in the ISP community to discuss Internet piracy and how we can work together constructively,” according to the RIAA press release.

“We look forward to dispelling some of the gross inaccuracies contained in the letter and hope that these ISPs will help to foster the legitimate online music marketplace.”

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