Arista Records LLC v. Does 1-16: Motion to Keep Secret the Identities of Alleged Copyright Infringers Denied: State University of New York at Albany Forced to Reveal Students' Identities

Copyright Digest Commentary First Amendment

Arista Records LLC v. Does 1-16 N.D.N.Y., February 18, 2009, No. 1:08-CV-765 Order

On February 18, 2009, United States Magistrate Judge Randolph F. Treece of the Northern District of New York denied a motion to quash a subpoena that would force the State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA) to reveal the identities of 16 students (“Doe Defendants”) alleged to have illegally shared music files.

The defendants raised four claims: “(1) the Subpoena is an infringement of their First Amendment Rights, (2) the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them, (3) the Complaint fails to state a cause of action; and, (4) the joinder of all Doe Defendants into this single action is improper.” The court ruled against the students on all four of these arguments. The court dismissed the students’ First Amendment claim to the right to privacy by declaring that the “modest First Amendment right to remain anonymous when there is an allegation of copyright infringement” must be balanced against a “copyright owner’s right to disclosure of the identity of a possible trespasser of its intellectual property interest,” and found that in this case the balance weighed on the side of disclosure. The court found the students’ personal jurisdiction and joinder challenges unpersuasive, as their merits cannot be properly determined while identities of the defendants had not yet been disclosed. It similarly denied the claim that the complaint failed to state a cause of action, holding that this claim is essentially a 12(b)(6) motion. Such a motion, the court reasoned, is procedurally improper at this point, as no complaint has been officially served on the Doe Defendants.

The students also argued that MediaSentry, a company retained by the Recording Industry Association of America to assist the plaintiffs with their investigation, illegally obtained evidence, and therefore this evidence cannot be used in a civil suit against them. MediaSentry gathered the IP addresses of 16 students who allegedly committed copyright infringement and believes that SUNYA, as the students’ ISP, can determine their identities based on the IP addresses. Although the court remains uncertain whether MediaSentry violated New York’s General Business Law § 70 by not obtaining a license to act as a private investigator, it nonetheless stated that the students ”are hardly in a position to claim trespass, force, or fraud by MediaSentry” and that any disputes about the admissibility of evidence should be saved for trial. Moreover, the court noted the lack of any authority for the proposition that illegally obtained evidence must be excluded from a civil trial.

Ben Sheffner, in a commentary posted on his Copyrights & Campaigns blog, agrees with the court’s ruling that the evidence gathered by MediaSentry should be admissible, saying that arguments to the contrary have always been “red herrings.” Sheffner argues that MediaSentry “simply accesses open peer-to-peer networks, where users have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson has reported on universities placed in similar situations to that of SUNYA that have refused to turn over the identities of students. According to Anderson, while the universities want to respect the rights of copyright holders, they reject the music industry’s premise that IP addresses can be reliably linked to the individuals that allegedly infringed on their copyright. The common sharing of computers in school environments and the prevalence of wireless networks on campuses are cited as common reasons why the owner of an IP address many not be responsible for copyright infringement committed using that IP address.