Appeasing the RIAA Is Getting Us Nowhere

MIT Should Stand Up for Its Students

In a now not so surprising move to avoid any entanglement in students’ affairs, Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict’s sole opinion of the Recording Industry Association of America in his last letter was, “We believe this campaign will continue and expand.” What follows is a tacit approval of the RIAA’s actions and a quick guide on how to easily appease the RIAA. MIT’s decision to kowtow to the RIAA is a mistake, both legally and principally.

Even if the RIAA was really the poor victim it claims to be, MIT probably should not be so quick to fall into its role as RIAA lapdog. The reason pre-litigation letters are sent is because real lawsuits are expensive. It is not an act of clemency or a new well of kindness suddenly sprung up in the previously evil RIAA.

Nowhere in MIT’s charter does it demand the safeguarding of corporate coffers. A brief search actually turns up a different purpose: “the advancement, development and practical application of science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufactures, and commerce.” It might be a stretch but I think it is more true to our charter that MIT take a stance that opposes anything the RIAA does to stifle the free flow of information and should only cooperate where legally mandated.

While some might argue that forwarding pre-litigation letters helps individual students, MIT should think about students as a whole who benefit from an Institute which cares more about their education than indulging the RIAA. Moreover, compared to the money the RIAA saves from not having to serve a lawsuit, the students save nearly nothing over the settlement amount post-lawsuit.

Perhaps even more troubling, though, is MIT’s belief that the RIAA has the law on its side. It doesn’t. What the RIAA is really doing is more akin to extortion; in fact, the letters sent explicitly tell poor students (and others) that settling is cheaper than challenging the RIAA in court. I don’t really blame the RIAA for that; if I had the legal standing the RIAA has, I wouldn’t want to go to court either.

The RIAA groups unrelated defendants in John Doe lawsuits and uses its billion dollar industry to crush them. You can check the case law yourself, but the RIAA’s motions are actually ridiculous. Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter because the RIAA uses legal tricks to ensure nobody is around to oppose it. The District Court of New Mexico denied such a subpoena, saying that it would require a “Coleridgian ‘suspension of disbelief’” to accept such anonymous lawsuits.

Of course, if all this is true (and it is), why does MIT let it happen? Benedict says, “MIT is legally required to provide the information sought by the valid subpoenas.” This is simply factually incorrect. That such an error was included in his letter (several times) might be a indication that MIT needs new lawyers. MIT can, in fact, serve a motion to essentially reject the subpoena. There is (specific) precedent for this.

Currently, students at George Washington University are in the midst of doing this right now. I have read one student’s (John Doe #3) motion and some of it is almost tautological. The University of Oregon, along with the attorney general of the same state, has also filed a similar motion, just like MIT could do. Instead, MIT is washing its hands of all of it, once again throwing its students to the dogs. MIT should stand up for its students and either use its legal team to oppose the RIAA or create a legal defense fund so that poor students can defend themselves.

Other schools have walked the path MIT is currently moving down, and the only results have been further restriction of the free flow of information. Ohio State University even installed exceptionally expensive peer-to-peer blocking software in its attempt to placate the RIAA and where are we? The RIAA is still lobbying Congress for federally mandated university restriction of the Internet, and it is still suing students.

Clearly the strategy of appeasing the RIAA has not worked. It is time to fight back.

Erek Speed is a member of the Class of 2009.