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Obama administration sides with RIAA in P2P suit

The Justice Department follows the Bush administration's previous lead, buttressing the recording industry's legal claims by arguing that copyright law is not "punitive" or overly broad.

The Obama administration has sided with the recording industry in a copyright lawsuit against an alleged peer-to-peer pirate, a move that echoes arguments previously made by the Bush administration.

A legal brief filed Sunday in a case that the Recording Industry Association of America is pursuing in Massachusetts argues that federal copyright law is not so overly broad and its penalties not so unduly severe that they count as "punitive." Current law allows a copyright holder to receive up to $150,000 in damages per violation.

The brief says "the harms caused by copyright infringement" on the Internet include limiting "a copyright owner's ability to distribute legal copies of copyrighted works. The public in turn suffers from lost jobs and wages, lost tax revenue, and higher prices for honest purchasers of copyrighted works."

The Obama administration's choice to intervene in the Massachusetts lawsuit comes after the Bush administration joined the RIAA's lawsuit against Jammie Thomas. It, too, defended the constitutionality of the statute--one of the Justice Department's duties--that a jury decided Thomas had violated. (Thomas has been awarded a new trial.)

The Massachusetts case could prove to be an important one. A group of Harvard law school students, with the help of Harvard law Professor Charles Nesson, is providing defendant Joel Tenenbaum with an aggressive legal defense. They aim to convince the courts that the law the RIAA relies on is so Draconian it amounts to "essentially a criminal statute" and is therefore unconstitutional; that it grants too much authority to copyright holders; and that it violates due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Those are the arguments that the Justice Department is attempting to refute. Its brief says that while the administration "does not address" the nonconstitutional arguments, "if the court finds it necessary to reach the constitutional questions at this time, then it should reject each of defendant's constitutional claims."

It adds: "The remedy of statutory damages for copyright infringement has been a cornerstone of our federal copyright law since 1790, and Congress acted reasonably in crafting the current incarnation of the statutory damages provision. Congress sought to account for both the difficulty of quantifying damages in the context of copyright infringement and the need to deter millions of users of new technology from infringing copyrighted works in an environment where many violators believe that their activities will go unnoticed."

Until recently, a top Justice Department official was representing the RIAA in the Massachusetts case. In early January, Barack Obama picked Tom Perrelli for associate attorney general; he was listed as a "lead attorney" for the RIAA in the case and had filed a formal notice of withdrawal less than two weeks earlier.

On February 4, Obama picked as associate deputy attorney general Donald Verrilli, who represented the RIAA in the Jammie Thomas case. Verrilli didn't file a motion to withdraw from the case until last week.