The decision comes after officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College challenged subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), saying the trade group's requests for information had not been legally filed.
The judge's decisions give the universities--and the anonymous students or staff file traders who are the ultimate target of the subpoenas--some breathing room. The colleges were objecting only on the technical legal grounds that the RIAA had filed the subpoenas in the wrong court, which means the trade group still can revise its requests in order to comply with the judge's order.
"Ultimately, we will file those subpoenas wherever the courts require us to," an RIAA spokesman said. "This is a minor procedural issue and does not change an undeniable fact--when individuals distribute music illegally online, they are not anonymous, and service providers must reveal who they are.?
Critics of the RIAA process welcomed even a limited ruling, however.
"I hope this will give other people hope," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has emerged as the chief critic of the recording industry's tactics. "It will be a lot easier for people to address problems in the RIAA subpoenas if they don't have to go to D.C. to do it."
The legal skirmishing in Massachusetts is just one part of a nationwide avalanche of RIAA subpoenas that the group is sending as part of an unprecedented campaign against Internet file trading on networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus.
Since late June, the RIAA has issued more than 900 subpoenas for information that would identify Internet service provider subscribers or university students who have allegedly offered copyrighted material online. The requests for information are a prelude to what the trade group has said will likely be thousands of copyright infringement lawsuits filed against individual file traders, beginning later this month.
Most of those subpoenas have been issued through an unorthodox legal process that's supported by a recent federal court case against Verizon Communications, which fought an earlier round of RIAA subpoenas last year. Verizon had argued that allowing a private group such as the RIAA to initiate subpoenas for subscriber information before any case had been filed was a violation of individual privacy and an unconstitutional process.
Both a lower court and an appeals court rejected Verizon's arguments, however, paving the way for the current wave of industry subpoenas.
The RIAA has used a single Washington, D.C., federal court as a clearinghouse to issue all the subpoenas, no matter their destination. MIT and BC's objections were based on that jurisdictional issue. They argued that they were not subject to orders the federal court issued.
In decisions issued late Thursday, the Massachusetts court agreed, saying federal legal rules required valid subpoenas to be issued in the local court.
The RIAA has also filed separate motions with the federal court asking for enforcement of the MIT and BC subpoenas. That court could rule differently from its Massachusetts counterpart, setting up a conflict between the two jurisdictions.
A California ISP, the SBC Communications subsidiary Pacific Bell Internet Services, has filed a more comprehensive challenge to the RIAA subpoenas. That case will be closely watched in the aftermath of the Massachusetts rulings.