Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A big fat pain in the ass

If you haven't yet read Joel Tenenbaum's essay, How It Feels to be Sued for $4.5m," you probably should.

Tenenbaum is one of the 30,000 random people the RIAA decided to sue for copyright infringement a few years back. His is the second case to go to trial (here is the first), and things got going in earnest this past Monday. You can follow developments via this website, or (of course) via Twitter.

One wonders if anyone at the RIAA is thinking ahead, following this chain of events to its logical conclusion. Let's say, for instance, that they win. What then? They get their $4.5m (sounds like a lot of money to you and me, but it's basically a 10% down payment on a one stage for a lousy U2 tour). They deepen the rift with their audience. The basic activities the case is about continue, unabated. Valuable time and energy that could have been spent working on a new business model (something like this, perhaps) are squandered forever.

Last nail, meet coffin.

Anyway, here's Tenenbaum, in his own words:

In 2005, my parents received a letter from Sony BMG, Warner, Atlantic Records, Arista Records, and UMG Records claiming "copyright infringement". They were given a number to call, which was their "settlement information line", a call centre staffed by operators who, we are emphatically told, are "not attorneys". The process of collecting money from these threats was so huge, they had set up a 1-800-DONT-SUE-ME-style call centre.

The operators did little more than ask how you would pay (they wanted $3,000, I believe) and repeated intimidating lawsuit statistics. I sent them a money order for $500, which they returned. I told them I couldn't pay any more. We discussed whether I might qualify for "financial hardship", and then I stopped hearing from them, which I didn't question. I graduated from college and began studying for my physics doctorate.

And then in August 2007, I came home from work to find a stack of papers, maybe 50 pages thick, sitting at the door to my apartment. [...]

I had frequent contact with one of their Colorado counsel. While she was impudent to the point of vicious ("Come on Joel, I think you did it"), I continued to use phrases like "I respect your position" and "we have a respectful difference of opinion". I have no record of this intimidation because the person in question made sure to keep contact restricted to phonecalls.

Every conversation consisted of her trying to get information out of me about my defense, telling me how much bigger the settlement would be if I didn't settle now. Shaken, I would call my mother, who was a state-paid lawyer in child custody cases, and ask her what to do. We blindly fired all kinds of motions at them. Eventually my mother became afraid to answer my calls, worried it would be about the case. For the court "settlement" I offered $5,250, which the RIAA declined, asking $10,500. I saw myself on a conveyor belt, being pulled inexorably toward the meshing of razor-sharp gears.


My sisters, dad and mother have all been deposed. My high-school friends, friends of the family too. My computer's been seized and hard drive copied, and my parents and sister narrowly escaped the same fate for their computers. And the professor who supervises my teaching is continually frustrated with my need to have people cover for me, while my research in grad school is put on hold to deal with people whose full-time job is to keep an anvil over my head. I have to consider every unrelated thing I do in my private life in the event that I'm interrogated under oath about it. I wonder how I'll stand up in a courtroom for hours having litigators try to convince a jury of my guilt and the reprehensibility of my character.

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