Obama picks RIAA's favorite lawyer for a top Justice post

A courtroom lawyer who has sued individual file swappers in multiple federal courts is President-elect Barack Obama's choice for a top Justice Department position.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama won applause from legal adversaries of the recording industry. Stanford law professor Larry Lessig, the doyen of the "free culture" movement, endorsed the Illinois senator, as did Google CEO Eric Schmidt and even the Pirate Party.

That was then. As president-elect, one of Obama's first tech-related decisions has been to select the Recording Industry Association of America's favorite lawyer to be the third in command at the Justice Department. And Obama's pick as deputy attorney general, the second most senior position, is the lawyer who oversaw the defense of the Copyright Term Extension Act--the same law that Lessig and his allies unsuccessfully sued to overturn.

Obama made both announcements on Monday, saying that his picks "bring the integrity, depth of experience and tenacity that the Department of Justice demands in these uncertain times." The soon-to-be-appointees: Tom Perrelli for associate attorney general and David Ogden for deputy attorney general.

Tom Perrelli
Tom Perrelli Jenner and Block

Campaign rhetoric aside, this should be no surprise. Obama's selection of Joe Biden as vice president showed that the presidential hopeful was comfortable with someone with firmly pro-RIAA views. Biden urged the criminal prosecutions of copyright-infringing peer-to-peer users and tried to create a new federal felony involving playing unauthorized music.

Perrelli is currently a partner in the Washington offices of Jenner and Block, where he represented the RIAA in a a slew of cases, including a high-profile bid to unmask file sharers without the requirement of a judge reviewing the evidence first. Verizon initially lost to the RIAA, but eventually prevailed in 2003 when a federal appeals court ruled the record labels' strategy under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was unlawful.

Perrelli has represented the RIAA in other lawsuits against individual file sharers. One filed in Michigan accuses a university student of distributing "hundreds of sound recordings over his system without the authorization of the copyright owners." A lawsuit against a Princeton University student makes similar arguments; Perrelli and his colleagues also tried to force Charter Communications to give up the names of 93 file-trading subscribers.

David Ogden
David Ogden WilmerHale

A 2004 summary of a Boston lawsuit written by Harvard's Berkman Center--which opposed the RIAA in this and a current case --quotes Perrelli as telling a federal judge that it would be easy to determine who was using a wireless network to share music. "It is correct that the actual downloader may be someone else in the household," he said, but any errors can be determined easily after a "modest amount of discovery."

An article on his law firm's Web site says that Perrelli represented SoundExchange before the Copyright Royalty Board--and obtained a 250 percent increase in the royalty rate for music played over the Internet by companies like AOL and Yahoo. Perrelli previously worked in the Clinton Justice Department.

An article in Legal Times titled "Building an Entertainment Beast in D.C." says that in 2002, Perrelli used Jenner's reputation as an appellate law firm to "get a meeting with officials at the RIAA, at a time when Internet file-sharing entities like Napster were threatening the music business." A year later, in 2003, the law firm recruited Steven Fabrizio, previously the RIAA's senior vice president for business and legal affairs, and business began booming (the RIAA also used the Jenner law firm to write a friend-of-the-court brief in the copyright extension lawsuit).

If confirmed by the Senate, which is unlikely to pose much of a hurdle, Perrelli would oversee the department's civil division, the antitrust division, and the civil rights division.

Obama's choice for deputy attorney general--the second-in-command at Justice--is David Ogden, who's currently a partner at the WilmerHale law firm.

As assistant attorney general for the civil division, Ogden was responsible for organizing the defense of the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, an antiporn law that has been challenged by the ACLU in court for more than a decade with no resolution. His department also successfully defended the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ogden's biography at Wilmer Hale says only that he represents the "media and Internet industries, as well as major trade and professional associations," without listing details. The Justice Department, barring exceptional cases, has a duty to defend laws enacted by Congress.

Perrelli, on the other hand, went out of his way to recruit the RIAA as a very lucrative client: his law firm bills some partners' time at a princely $1,000 an hour.

During his confirmation hearing, it will be instructive to see if senators ask whether his zealous anti-file sharing advocacy can make him an objective civil servant--especially when these same politicians want the Justice Department to sue peer-to-peer pirates at taxpayer's expense. (Then again, if that proposal becomes law, Perrelli's surely the right man for the job.)

It will also be instructive to see if this week's news prompts some of the RIAA's longtime adversaries to moderate their enthusiasm for Obama's technology policies.

 

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