MediaSentry defends work for RIAA in music piracy cases

Company says it gathers public info, disputes claims that it needs investigator's licenses

MediaSentry Inc. today strongly disputed accusations, made by legal opponents of the Recording Industry Association of America and some state officials, that the company is engaging in what amounts to an unlicensed private investigation practice as it gathers evidence for the RIAA to use in music piracy lawsuits.

Through its parent company, SafeNet Inc., Belcamp, Md.-based MediaSentry rejected contentions that it needs to obtain private investigator's licenses in order to legally continue its work on behalf of the RIAA in many states.

The provider of online content-protection services also denied that it infiltrates the computers of users in search of evidence to back up copyright infringement lawsuits filed by the RIAA, as some have suggested. All of the information gathered by MediaSentry for the RIAA is publicly available on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and has been made openly available by the users of such networks themselves, SafeNet spokeswoman Donna St. Germain said via e-mail.

"MediaSentry records public information available to millions of users," St. Germain wrote. "If private investigator licenses were required to do what MediaSentry does, every user on Limewire and other illegal p2p networks would be required to have a license. Indeed, every search engine and Internet user would be required to have a private investigator license if MediaSentry needs one."

The comments from SafeNet come in response to a growing litany of complaints about MediaSentry's alleged practice of doing computer forensics work for the RIAA without first obtaining the investigative licenses required in many states. Last Friday, for instance, a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor asked the state government to initiate legal proceedings against MediaSentry over its work for the RIAA.

In a letter sent to Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG), the unnamed student claimed that MediaSentry is willfully violating state law by continuing its investigative work on behalf of the RIAA despite knowing that it is required to have a private investigator's license in order to carry out such activities.

The student is one of several "John Does" at the University of Michigan who are being sued by the RIAA, which alleges that they illegally downloaded and shared music files. In June, the student filed an initial complaint with the DLEG asking the agency to order MediaSentry to cease all copyright-related investigations of Michigan residents until the company obtained a license allowing it to operate as a private investigator in the state.

The follow-up letter urged the DLEG to refer the student's complaint to the state attorney general for either civil or criminal prosecution. The letter claimed that MediaSentry had been informed by the DLEG about its need to obtain a private investigator's license as far back as Feb. 22. But the company appears to have continued its work for the RIAA regardless, according to the letter.

The letter added that Michigan had "substantially revised" its statutes governing private investigators in late May. The revised rules make it "absolutely clear" that the work MediaSentry is doing requires a formal private investigator's license, the letter said.

The RIAA filed a lawsuit against the student and six other state residents in June, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Pointing to that lawsuit, the student's letter said that the information about alleged copyright infringements presented by the RIAA was collected solely by MediaSentry, much of it since the company was informed of the need for an investigator's license. The type of information that was gathered clearly shows the investigative nature of MediaSentry's work, the letter said.

News of the letter was first reported by Recording Industry Vs The People, a blog site run by Ray Beckerman, a New York-based lawyer who has represented individuals charged in other RIAA lawsuits. Beckerman also has posted a copy of the letter (download PDF) on his site.

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