Nine months ago, the University of Maine took the ballsy step of refusing to tell the Recording Industry Association of America which of its students was potentially responsible for illegal music downloads. Now, UMaine is disrupting the RIAA’s legal strategy again, this time through an offshoot of the university’s law school.
Two third-year law students working at the school’s Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic — which offers legal aid to low-income clients — are taking on the RIAA on behalf of two university students. Hannah Ames and Lisa Chmelecki filed a motion in December, claiming that the RIAA’s method of chasing alleged downloaders is overly vague and violates a legal standard previously set by the US Supreme Court.
See, RIAA lawyers are able to find out downloaders’ Internet addresses, but they don’t know to whom those addresses belong. So they file general lawsuits against a group of “John Does” at the network’s central location — i.e., the university from which their Internet service originates. At that point, the university can serve as a conduit, forwarding the RIAA’s notification to the students (who can then settle online), and/or providing the user’s information to RIAA officials.
But since UMaine has refused to do so (see “UMaine Refuses to Out Downloading Students,” by Emily Parkhurst, April 20, 2007), the RIAA has sought a court order forcing the university to reveal the students’ names.
That’s where the law students come in. Ames, Chmelecki, and their faculty advisor, Deirdre Smith, argue that the RIAA’s effort is not specific enough to meet federal standards that would require the university to turn over the names — standards that call for the RIAA to provide evidence of why it is entitled to damages.
The RIAA “use[s] vague, exaggerated terms to describe the enormous effect of Defendants’ alleged violations,” they write in their filing, asking a judge to dismiss the case against John Does 16 and 18. “Referring to ‘billions’ of copyrighted works and ‘millions’ of people receiving illegal downloads does not” make a strong enough case that these two users have harmed the recording industry, they say.
The motion is now before a federal district-court judge in Bangor; it’s unknown when a decision will be issued.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students — we don’t get into federal court that often,” Smith says. The clinic more typically takes family law, domestic violence cases, or miscellaneous civil cases. “This is a slightly different kind of case.”
Aside from the fact that they’re attacking an industry giant — and garnering significant attention for doing so — Ames and Chmelecki are still just doing an assignment. Writing the brief, Portlander Chmelecki says, “was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in law school.” For the record, she remains unsure about whether or not she’d like to pursue intellectual property law in the future.