Complaints filed over RIAA's piracy investigators

Trouble for Media Sentry Inc.

In a similar letter accompanying his complaint, the unnamed student from the University of Michigan alleged that he had been subjected to "intrusive and illegal" investigation by Media Sentry. The student alleged that an extensive investigation of his activities on the university's systems had been undertaken by Media Sentry to determine his identity, his Internet activities and the contents and nature of files on his computer. Such activity clearly qualifies as private investigative work under Michigan's Private Detective License Act and therefore requires a license, the letter stated.

Such complaints present a "big problem" for Media Sentry and by extension the RIAA according to Ray Beckerman, a New York attorney who runs the Recording Industry Vs The People blog site and has represented clients in RIAA copyright infringement cases. The issue at stake, he said, is whether the information that the RIAA is depending on to make its music piracy cases will be allowed to stand in court.

"This is all new. No one knows how these things will play out," he said. He noted that the recent actions add to the growing concerns being raised in several quarters over Media Sentry's investigative techniques on behalf of the RIAA.

For instance, North Carolina's Private Protective Services Board has scheduled a probable cause hearing in December to determine if Media Sentry broke state laws when it collected information on behalf of the RIAA in copyright infringement cases that have been filed against several individuals in the state. The hearing was prompted by a complaint filed against Media Sentry in July by the attorney defending individuals in the case.

Similarly, Oregon's Attorney General has sought an investigation of Media Sentry's investigative practices, Beckerman said. Last November, the state AGs office filed an appeal in U.S. District Court in Oregon calling for an immediate investigation of the evidence presented by the RIAA when it subpoenaed the identities of 17 students at the University of Oregon who allegedly infringed music copyrights. In a 15-page brief, Oregon's assistant attorney general, Katherine Von Ter Stegge, said that while it is appropriate for victims of copyright infringement to pursue statutory remedies, that pursuit had to "tempered by basic notions of privacy and due process. "The record in this case suggests that the larger issue may not be whether students are sharing copyrighted music," the state's brief noted. Rather it is about whether the litigation strategies adopted by the RIAA are appropriate or capable of supporting their claims.

In January this year, the Massachusetts Department of State Police sent a formal order to SafeNet asking the company to cease and desist its private investigations in the commonwealth. The department's order noted that an investigation had shown that SafeNet was advertising and operating a private detective company in the state without the needed license.

In an e-mailed comment, a spokeswoman from SafeNet said the company was not at "liberty" to comment on ongoing litigation. She referred further inquiries to the RIAA. The RIAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
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