RIAA v. the Students: An FAQ for "Pre-Lawsuit" Letter Targets

1. What is the RIAA and why are they sending me a letter?

The Recording Industry Association of America is a trade group that represents many of the major U.S. record labels. The RIAA has been trying for years to shut down peer-to-peer file sharing networks. One way it has tried to accomplish this is by suing (or threatening to sue) thousands of people it alleges have used file-sharing networks. These disputes are usually settled out of court, after the accused infringer agrees to pay compensation, usually in the range $3,000 to $5,000.

These tactics have not been very successful for the RIAA: file-sharing continues unabated, and the lawsuits have actually encouraged fans to use other readily-accessible technologies that the RIAA can't easily monitor, such as copying music through iTunes over the campus LAN, swapping hard drives and USB flash drives, burning recordable DVDs, and forming ad hoc wireless networks.

Nevertheless, the RIAA has recently stepped up the campaign, this time targeting college students like you. On Feb. 28, RIAA began asking officials at colleges and universities (which are also internet service providers) to forward "pre-litigation letters" to students who the RIAA alleges have infringed its members' copyrights. These letters offer a "discounted" settlement fee if students agree to settle within 20 days of receiving the letter.

The RIAA has also recently put pressure on non-academic internet service providers to retain customer information so that RIAA investigators can more easily track down people it alleges are violating copyright. See http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/005124.php.

Here is some of the media coverage on the RIAA's recent college campaign:

For background information on the RIAA's efforts to stifle file sharing, see "RIAA v. The People: Two Years Later," by EFF: http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/RIAAatTWO_FINAL.pdf.

Also see "How Not To Get Sued For File Sharing" by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/howto-notgetsued.php.

2. What does RIAA want me to do?

If the letter you have received is one of the latest round of "pre-litigation letters," and not notice of a lawsuit, it alleges you have infringed RIAA member copyrights, and offer to settle with you, prior to litigation. If you agree to settle the case, you will have to pay the record companies in order to keep them from suing you, and give up your right to defend yourself in court.

The letter also asks you to preserve evidence relating to the claims against you.

Settlement letters we have seen claim that RIAA will offer a "significantly reduced" settlement to people who respond to the letters within 20 days.

3. Do I have to settle?

No. You can choose not to settle and, if the RIAA decides to sue, to defend yourself in court. If you are interested in pursuing this option, you should talk to a lawyer who can help you understand whether a settlement is appropriate and what you may be up against.

If you need help finding a lawyer, check these websites for lists of lawyers who defend targets of RIAA lawsuits:

If you go to court and lose the lawsuit, you will probably be ordered to pay damages. If you cannot pay, you may want to consider bankruptcy, which can result in elimination of the judgment, but also has other consequences you will need to consider. More information on this option is available here: http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/RIAA_v_ThePeople/P2P_bktcy_memo.pdf

4. Does this letter mean that I'm guilty of violating federal copyright law?

No, but it does mean that the RIAA has accused you of infringing its members' copyrights. It is illegal, in some contexts, to copy music and share it without getting permission from the copyright holder. If you have done so, and your actions were not authorized or a fair use, you may have violated copyright law.

However, the RIAA has sued a number of people who did nothing that could even arguably be considered a copyright violation. Many had no idea why they are being sued. Some defendants have never even used a computer, or have never engaged in file sharing. See http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/20030924_eff_pr.php.

For more information about what constitutes copyright infringement, see http://chillingeffects.org/piracy/.

For information about how the RIAA litigation process works, see http://recordingindustryvspeople.blogspot.com/#114407412140982469.

5. What can universities and colleges do?

There are a number of things educational institutions can do to protect the rights of their students, including:
  1. Providing FAQs like this one to help students understand their options;
  2. Helping students find counsel, if they wish to consult an attorney;
  3. Demanding that the RIAA refrain from "ex parte" activities -- legal proceedings outside the normal, open litigation process. These ex parte proceedings make it easier for the RIAA to strong-arm students into settlements that may not be in students' best interests because they are conducted outside the normal adversarial process and students may not even be represented. Universities could also oppose any ex parte applications by the RIAA to begin discovery on students who the RIAA alleges have pirated music. Similarly, universities could move to vacate any such order that has been granted.
  4. Follow the University of Nebraska's lead and demand reimbursement for the cost of processing the RIAA's complaints.
  5. Review their data retention policies to consider whether they are unwittingly aiding the RIAA's lawsuit campaign by retaining IP address logs (which can be used to help identify alleged filesharers) for longer than necessary.

6. The letter tells me I should contact the RIAA to learn more. Should I do that?

The RIAA is just one of many sources of information about file sharing and the RIAA's lawsuits against alleged file-sharers. There are many other ways to learn about what the RIAA is doing, many of them listed in the FAQ's above. As you read the RIAA's information about their college campaign, keep in mind that the RIAA, as a party to a legal proceeding, is protecting its own interests. They are, by definition, a biased source of information. We encourage you to learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can.

Here are some additional links to get you started:

You may also want to talk to a lawyer. If you need help finding a lawyer, check these websites for lists of lawyers who defend targets of RIAA lawsuits:

7. Could my parents be liable for copyright infringement based on my actions?

The answer will depend on the facts of your situation, but parents are generally not liable for infringements committed by their kids. More information that may help you and your parents evaluate your situation is available here:
http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/Parent_Liability_Nov_2005.pdf and here: http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/005114.php

8. What if I've already been sued?

If you receive notice that your ISP has been subpoenaed for your name and address or if you have already been sued, consider contacting http://subpoenadefense.org, where you can find information about how to defend your privacy and a list of attorneys that may be able to help. Contact your ISP and ask the subpoena response department to notify you immediately if they receive a subpoena seeking your identity.

Finally, seek legal counsel. If you need help finding a lawyer, these websites provide lists of lawyers who defend targets of RIAA lawsuits: