Complaints filed over RIAA's piracy investigators

Trouble for Media Sentry Inc.

A company that is regularly used by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to gather evidence against individuals in copyright infringement cases is coming under increasing fire for operating without a Private Investigators' license as required by many states.

The latest trouble for Media Sentry Inc. comes in the form of two recent and nearly identical complaints filed against it with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG).

One of the complaints was filed last week by Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. That filing asks the state agency to compel Media Sentry to cease all copyright-related investigations of Michigan residents until it obtains a license to operate as a private investigator in the state. The other complaint, which asks for the same action, was filed in June by an unnamed student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

News of the complaints along with links was first published last week by Recording Industry Vs the People, a blog that specializes in covering the RIAA's crackdown against alleged copyright infringers. According to the blog, there are now at least three complaints filed on the same grounds against Media Sentry in Michigan alone. The first one was filed by a Michigan resident in February.

Both of the recent complaints against the Belcamp, Md.-based Media Sentry alleged the company was investigating Michigan individuals without being licensed to do so. Media Sentry, which bills itself as a provider of online content-protection services, is owned by SafeNet, a company that claims to provide online content protection and distribution services for large media and entertainment companies.

In a letter accompanying last week's complaint, Central Michigan University's assistant general counsel said that the university has in the past been served subpoenas requesting the personal information of certain students who had been the subject of "potentially illegal" investigations by Media Sentry. According to that letter, Media Sentry's investigations had resulted in copyright infringement charges being leveled against the students by the RIAA.

The university's letter also noted that as far back as February, Michigan's DLEG had informed Media Sentry that its activities might be in violation of state laws and had instructed it to obtain a license if the company planned on continuing its investigative activities in the state. But so far Media Sentry appears not to have obtained a private investigators license in the state and has been continuing its "unlicensed and illegal" actions in Michigan, the letter noted.

Steve Smith, CMU's director of media relations said the complaint was prompted by the university's desire to ensure that the subpoenas being served on students was based on information that had been obtained by a legally licensed entity in the state. The hope in filing the complaint is that the RIAA will engage a licensed company to do its investigations so "we can be confident that the subpoena has been properly obtained," he said. All subpoenas the university has received from the RIAA so far have been served, he added.

Page Break

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.