January 11, 2008 8:26 PM   Subscribe

It appears my sister is being sued by the RIAA.

My sister showed my a letter she received from [some law firm], via her student email account from her school, stating that they are filing a lawsuit against her, and that she has 20 days to respond in order to settle outside of court, else be sued for everything. I've read that the law firm likes to target college students at schools like hers (on the smaller side, wealthier kids) because of the assumption that the defendant's parents have a lot of money. We do not. We are in debt, massively. She hasn't told my parents yet. Right now, we're trying to figure out what to do.

Does anyone have any experience with something like this? What can she do? What are our options here? Does she settle? Do we fight? Given that they (seemingly) tracked her through Limewire, do they actually have real proof against her?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (32 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
AskMetafilter is not your lawyer. Nor am I.

That being said, I am pretty sure that any sort of official legal correspondence must go through the mail. I'd talk to your parents and see what they have to say, lawyering up is quite possibly a necessity.

You also haven't given us any details about what she's accused of, or what she has or has not done. It could be anything from "you shared many files and we have proof" to "you were logged into Limewire, and we're casting many lines, hoping to catch some fish."

Hard to say, really. See if there's a cheap/free legal aid resource available to her on campus.
posted by explosion at 8:33 PM on January 11, 2008

A layperson's guide to a RIAA lawsuit.

Directory of lawyers defending against RIAA lawsuits.

Long story short - they've got her and it's 99 times out of 100 cheaper to settle out of court for several thousand dollars than to fight it.
posted by unixrat at 8:40 PM on January 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Having read unixrat's first link, how is this not extortion?
posted by notsnot at 8:49 PM on January 11, 2008

There's a lot of detail missing here. Does the letter from the lawyers say exactly whom they are representing? You say it "appears" as if your sister is being sued by the RIAA.

Has she actually illegally downloaded anything?

They don't necessarily need enough "real proof" as you'd think, at least as far as precedent goes, and it's probably not worth it to fight this - they're not doing this to collect money as much as to create more precedent, I'd imagine.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:50 PM on January 11, 2008

The letter states that she has 52 songs on her hard drive, and provided a list of 8 as examples of what she has. She is being accused of distributing these songs, and of copyright infringement.

And I realize that Metafilter is not my lawyer. But I don't know what she should do, honestly, and neither does she, and if we can do this in a way where my parents don't have one more financial thing to worry about, that would be preferable. I'm here looking for experiences that the hive mind has had regarding this issue. That being said, the more I think about this, the more I think she's going to have to lawyer up and/or settle. The school wants to meet with her when she gets back, so there may be something they could do.
posted by gc at 8:50 PM on January 11, 2008

I know nothing about RIAA suits, but I'd like to suggest that, when on the verge of a lawsuit, please be careful what you post about the lawsuit on a public forum. I'd be particularly careful about discussing the specifics of what she did or did not do. I know you haven't done that yet, but I just wanted to toss this reminder out there.
posted by lassie at 9:12 PM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get a lawyer. No one here can offer meaningful advice applicable to your specific situation. Consult a legal professional at your earliest opportunity.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:21 PM on January 11, 2008

Listen to lassie. Listen to Ironmouth. Do not listen to what explosion said about "official legal correspondence." Unfortunately, you already have "one more financial thing to worry about."

Without commenting on your sister's situation (because I'm not her lawyer and I don't know any details regarding her situation), a hypothetical suit alleging infringement of 50 registered works carries a potential judgment between $37,500 and $1,500,000 (17 USC § 504(c)(1)). Allegations of willfulness, if proven, could increase that maximum to as much as $7,500,000 (§ 504(c)(2)). I'm not trying to scare you, but were I threatened with such a suit, I would think it wise to speak with a lawyer. The directory unixrat links to may be a good first step, although I know nothing about it.
posted by Partial Law at 9:34 PM on January 11, 2008

My sister showed my a letter she received from [some law firm], via her student email account from her school...

That being said, I am pretty sure that any sort of official legal correspondence must go through the mail.

Be sure that the allegation is indded legitimate before acting. Time and research is "on your side." No need to rush due to "emotion."

You say that your sister received an e-mail regarding the alleged infraction. Before "lawyering up", she should respond to the e-mail message and demand that "they" send their claim on official stationery to her by way of "registered mail." She should also demand that they provide the name, phone number, etc. of the attorney representing the claim, so that she can have a "one-on-one" chat with him/her before proceeding.

This situation could be an elaborate example of "phishing," based on "instilling fear" in seeking a "quick fix" to a perceived wrong-doing. If it's not, the claimant will be sure to let you know that the charge is indeed legitimate.

Proceed with caution. Proceed with wisdom and advice.
posted by ericb at 9:36 PM on January 11, 2008

In "response" to ericb's "post": Unixrat's first link makes it pretty clear that time is not on the side of the defendant in these RIAA cases. But, you're right: Legal communication should not happen over email.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:42 PM on January 11, 2008

I would definitely make sure that the email is legitimate. This seems really odd that it would come via email, regardless of it being a school email or not. Most ppl, including myself, start getting spam thru their school email only a few months after the account being open, and personally, I've only used my school email for "school functions." So definitely check in on this first! (did they leave a phone # or such?)
posted by uncballzer at 11:08 PM on January 11, 2008

First: do not do anything without first contacting an attorney. That includes sending them an email demanding a paper copy of their letter. If the school wants to meet with her, assume this is real.

Second: Many times this type of thing happens with the Uni acting as the intermediary. The RIAA gives the Uni IP addresses and an email to send, the university sends it to avoid the trouble of dealing with the RIAA.

Third: Get an attorney. Be ready to hear "there's not much we can do for you here, your best bet is to settle" because that's probably the case, since you've indicated that you don't have the money to fight it on principle.

Fourth: This is essentially "free" money for them. It's possible that, if you settle, they would be willing to work out some sort of payment-over-time plan that might be more palatable to your sister and/or your parents.

Fifth: Get an attorney. (No, really)
posted by toomuchpete at 12:18 AM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Her campus should have an ombudsperson. Tell her to get in touch with this person ASAP. Also, you pretty much need a lawyer. Good luck.
posted by spiderskull at 2:23 AM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't contact anyone else before getting an attorney.

You also haven't given us any details about what she's accused of, or what she has or has not done.

Don't tell us. Really. Tell your attorney. Tell your sister not to write down anything about the case (including e-mails to her friends, blog posts, on her computer which might get subpoenaed) until she contacts an attorney.

Ray Beckerman's blog follows contested RIAA cases, which might introduce you to some of the legal issues and the tactics the RIAA uses.
posted by grouse at 2:43 AM on January 12, 2008

DO WHAT toomuchpete SAID TO DO.

I'd add a sixth: Email the admins and ask them a) change the author of your post to "anonymous" and b) replace the lawfirm you named above with a generic one.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:21 AM on January 12, 2008

I would suggest contact one of the lawyers listed in unixrat's second link, and ask them if this email is a common approach taken by the RIAA. They would seem to have a finger on the RIAA's methods.
I say this because it seems really odd that, in a legal matter such as this, the first contact would be made via email. Honestly, the voices in my head are telling me that this could just as easily be some new phishing scam as anything legitimate.

Tread warily. But definitely talk to a knowledgeable lawyer before doing anything.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:31 AM on January 12, 2008

I say this because it seems really odd that, in a legal matter such as this, the first contact would be made via email.

The RIAA has been making deals with universities to pass on their threatening letters without making the RIAA get a subpoena first. So I don't think it's odd that the university would do this via e-mail. I would take it seriously enough to ask a lawyer (one of the lawyers in unixrat's link would be great) about it.
posted by grouse at 6:46 AM on January 12, 2008

There is some useful advice to be found on the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website. Specifically at this link below:


If you scroll down the page, there is a section on what to do if you've already been sued. It provides some advice and a series of links you may find helpful.
posted by upplepop at 7:11 AM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

IANAL, but there is a lot of terrible advice in this thread, esp. those saying you should write back asking for more information. DO NOT CONTACT THEM DIRECTLY without talking to some kind of bona fide legal counsel first. And don't post anything else here.
posted by mkultra at 7:42 AM on January 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

Please listen to lassie and allkindsoftime -- please email one of the mods asking to anonymize this post, especially by removing the name of the law firm and your own username...
posted by lorimer at 7:45 AM on January 12, 2008

Second: Many times this type of thing happens with the Uni acting as the intermediary. The RIAA gives the Uni IP addresses and an email to send, the university sends it to avoid the trouble of dealing with the RIAA.

I work for a University and this is true. Get a lawyer.
posted by mealy-mouthed at 8:24 AM on January 12, 2008

IANAL, but I am wholly interested in the legality of the RIAA's tactics. Plus, this subject hit close to home a few times.

Looking into the merits of IP-blocker Peerguardian, I stumbled into their forums where a Copyright Infringement Specialist actually dispensed advice.

He now operates the free service Infringementsupport.org; I have not used this service, but I remember browsing the Peerguardian's Infringement FAQ wiki extensively, and suggest that you do the same--it's good stuff.

You should definitely read what those sites have to say, and contact a specialist if you have specific questions. I think you should NOT make any replies to the school/law firm/RIAA until you sit down, breathe, research, breath some more, and then think. (That's not legal advice, just something good to do in situations likes these.)

Finally, for what it's worth, Engadget did a know-your-rights post about RIAA/MPAA lawsuits.
posted by BenzeneChile at 9:30 AM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

She may have Kazaa, Limewire or another filesharing program installed. By default, they share downloaded and maybe other files back out to others. She should absolutely talk to a lawyer. Her school may have a student legal office.
posted by theora55 at 9:42 AM on January 12, 2008

I think the poster understands the importance of securing a lawyer, folks.

No one here can offer meaningful advice applicable to your specific situation.

I'm sick of seeing this crap.

Perhaps no more specifically applicable advice can be offered, but there's been a slew of interesting links posted already, particularly the information regarding the scammers trying to use the fear of lawsuit to get money from people afraid of losing their shirts to the RIAA. So, to all the "nothing more can be said" assholes in the thread, please take your own advice and shut the fuck up if you have nothing more useful to contribute than GYOL. Just because you personally have nothing more to add doesn't mean positive contributions to the thread can't still be made.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:07 AM on January 12, 2008 [8 favorites]

Some colleges have people on staff that are paid to give free legal advice to college students. You might want to look into whether your sister's college offers such a service.
posted by drezdn at 10:51 AM on January 12, 2008

It may matter whether this allegedly took place when she was on her school connection or her home connection. I'm not asking you to post those details here; but what used to happen at my university was that the RIAA and/or one of its member companies would send the network administrator the complaint, not the individual student, at which time the administrator would send you an email detailing the infraction and ordering you either to simply delete the files in question or to delete the files and pay a fine to the university, which ostensibly would be forwarded on to the RIAA or the company. If you didn't take action on these complaints, your university network connection would be shut off until they could, in some cases, personally inspect your computer to see if the files were there.

I have a number of close friends who got emails from the admin like this when we were in college, and it seemed to split about 50/50 whether they were asked to pay a fine or simply asked to delete all illegal files. Threats escalated, of course, if this was a second or third infraction.

The fact that the email came directly to your sister's university email from the law firm, rather than from a university or home network administrator, is interesting. Also interesting is that it came via email, rather than a certified letter. Those facts don't necessarily mean anything, in and of themselves, but they do make me wonder how they connected her school email address with an alleged file-sharing infraction. This says to me either she may have used a school email address as her handle on Limewire (regardless of whether she was at home or at school, that would of course be a poor choice), or they're trolling to see who bites, sending emails like this to every student at her university (in which case they may have gotten the email address from a publicly accessible database, and don't necessarily have her home address), or perhaps the university includes a student's email address as part of their IP address, or perhaps they received that information from her university or ISP network administrator. The problem is, you don't know which of these, if any, might be the case. But that's a very relevant question to figure out amongst yourselves—how is her university email account part of the mix?

If the alleged infraction was supposed to have taken place while she was using a university network connection, she'll likely need to speak with her university network administrators—and that involvement with them may actually turn out to be a good thing, as the administrators may have an established procedure for establishing your compliance with the RIAA's demands while avoiding massive fees. Then again, it may turn out badly—they may not have such a procedure in place, and, depending on how tech-savvy they are, may freak out and try to do things like suspend her university account. It would be worthwhile at this point to also take a look at her university (and your home!) terms of service for using network resources just to get some idea of to what extent those terms of service may/may not protect your sister.

The thing to keep in mind when reading my advice here, though, is that most of the infractions I heard about while in college took place approximately five years ago, when the RIAA was first sending out these sorts of letters, and thus when the RIAA, network admins and students alike were still new to the game. As noted earlier in the thread, the RIAA may have evolved its technique for this since then, jumping straight to sending such emails to the student—and the fact that they're doing it by email at this stage may simply mean they're trying to save costs, not that their complaint is any less legitimate. Today, in 2008, sending the email directly to your sister's university email account may be the way they do things—and because of that, you don't want to take the risk of not taking this seriously.
posted by limeonaire at 11:17 AM on January 12, 2008

Oh, and my other advice to your sister? Get the right kind of lawyer, not just someone your parents happen to know.

Find someone in your area who is versed in this specific area of law, preferably someone who has dealt with this kind of case before. I'm not sure how you find such a lawyer, nor what area you're in, but tread carefully—in all things Internet-related, it matters how tech-savvy the person representing you is, and I absolutely would not proceed forward with a lawyer who didn't know technical details about how a hard drive works, how file-sharing works, what it means to download/upload files, how one goes about downloading/uploading, how one goes about "proving" or disproving that an instance of file-sharing was willful or purposeful, etc.

Doesn't matter how good the lawyer is, if s/he doesn't know the details of the technology, s/he may misunderstand your case, may say there's no possible defense, etc. You don't want to take that chance.
posted by limeonaire at 11:26 AM on January 12, 2008

Talk to a lawyer or ombudsman now.

Do nothing to the computer - and I mean nothing.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 12:50 PM on January 12, 2008

In the Fight Over Piracy, a Rare Stand for Privacy

. . .the program seems to be expanding, and universities are being asked to play an even bigger role. In February [2007], the association [RIAA] started asking universities to identify students suspected of file sharing and to pass along “prelitigation letters” to them. The association says it has provided some 4,000 such letters to more than 150 colleges and universities. The letters offer the students what they call bargain settlements of about $3,000 if they act fast. . .
posted by mlis at 8:02 PM on January 12, 2008

Mod note: redacted name of law firm in a few comments, sorry about that
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:50 PM on January 12, 2008

The non-linked URLs me and Jayder posted should probably go away too, they're directly to the unmentionables site.
posted by IronLizard at 9:46 PM on January 12, 2008

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