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Run Over by the RIAA

By Cassandra R. Hunt

I have a confession. Once upon a time, in a land just a little more dangerous than it is now, I was … a pirate! I did not sail the torrential seas of the Internet in search of precious MB of glittering mp3 booty. No, I was content in my little cove, which was given the innocuous name i2hub. You will not find it with any site map or search bar — today it is googols of miles away, farther than any can travel, for even my haven was not safe from the long arm of the RIAA.

Last fall I wrote an opinion piece on music piracy (How to Avoid Getting RIAAed, Oct. 21, 2005) that may have seemed oddly timed to all but myself and, I am told, one other MIT student. It was inspired by an e-mail from MIT letting me know that the RIAA intended to extract my name from the ‘tute so that I could be named in a lawsuit. I began looking into previous RIAA suits to see how these things played out, and was surprised by the lack of firsthand accounts. How tragic, since the RIAA hopes fear of lawsuits will keep people from stealing music. More information on the process would turn that fear of the unknown into something more concrete and deridable.

So here we go: an account of my foray into the RIAA lawsuit machine. After that first e-mail, I didn’t hear anything for about two months until I received — joy of joys! — a package in the mail. While normally an occasion to celebrate, the fact that it was a large envelope from MIT legal quickly changed by tune. And tunes turned out to be the manner at hand: the materials inside said MIT would be forking over my name in fourteen days, and proceeded to enumerate my rights and responsibilities hitherto and forthwith and sideways etc., etc., etc. And just in time for Christmas.

I’ve got to hand it to MIT legal, though. In mid-January I received another fat envelope letting me know that, because there was no confirmation that I had received the last mailing, MIT had held off giving up my name so they could send another one. Which may be legitimate, but also sounds like someone’s tap dancing to buy time. If this was the case, thanks, MIT.

However, even the ‘tute couldn’t put things off forever. Some things in life are inevitable, like death, taxes, and late nights tooling; such is the RIAA’s relentless pursuit of villainous, scurvy pirates like myself. I received a letter from a Colorado-based law firm telling me I’ve been named in a suit for copyright infringement.

At no time in the course of any of this had I been informed exactly what the RIAA had against me. I had been informed, however, that I should not delete any evidence of my crimes from my computer, even though they already had this mysterious evidence. Ironic, really, considering that not long ago I had sent my computer in to HP for a replacement DVD-ROM and, in their infinite wisdom, the company had decided that this warranted wiping my hard drive. On top of the three major projects and loads of photographs I’d lost, the music I’d been accused of sharing now rested in that mythical paradise to which all lost data goes.

The law firm was kind enough to pass along a number to contact RIAA representatives, so I gave it a ring … and reached their “settlement negotiation hotline.” My jaw nearly dropped. Talk about an organized attack! And to add insult to injury, the area code was for Missouri, my home state. I left my name and number at the beep as instructed but decided to talk to the law firm instead … and reached their RIAA related answering machine.

Eventually, I got through to a real person and asked, perhaps a little peevishly, “So, what is it that you guys think you have on me, anyway?” The answer was (a whopping) 272 songs and, should the case go to trial, potentially $750 per song. Now, I know what you’re thinking: with a collection of 272 whole songs, no wonder the RIAA felt compelled to squash my threat to the sanctity of music. However, with the grace and benevolence only a huge corporate machine could display, the lady on the phone told me they’d be willing to settle for $3750.

I actually started laughing at her. “Okay,” I said, “so who do I talk to about negotiating that?” She replied that they usually wanted the amount within 15 days, but that they had a six month payment plan available. How nice. “No, no,” I said, “I mean who do I talk to about negotiating the amount.” Turns out the whole ‘negotiation’ part of the hotline covered the way they take your money, not to what degree.

On a related topic, check out my upcoming series on the best ways to raise money @mit.edu.