Target of RIAA lawsuit says music piracy case has been an ordeal

College student Joel Tenenbaum claims trade group wanted to make an example of him

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The RIAA's lawsuit against Tenenbaum has certainly had consequences for the college student. In September, Tenenbaum was deposed for what he said was nine hours by RIAA lawyers in Boston. He said that during the deposition, he was barraged with questions about every computer he had owned or used, the names of songs he had downloaded and the peer-to-peer software he used. The lawyers even asked him about certain modifications he made to his car in high school because of photos they found on his computer, he said.

The computer at the center of the case has long since been trashed as a result of what Tenenbaum claimed was a burned-out CPU. But, he said, the RIAA has asked for a complete copy of the hard disk in his current computer as well as the ones used by his parents and his sister, who lives in Pittsburgh. He described that request as "a disturbing invasion of privacy."

Tenenbaum's parents and sister have also been deposed in the case, as has a friend of his mother who works as a patent attorney in Minnesota and called the RIAA hotline on behalf of Tenenbaum's parents after they received the pre-litigation notice. "She happened to know copyright law," Tenenbaum said. "They kept saying she was my lawyer. We had to file an affidavit to get them to stop calling her my lawyer."

As a result of the the RIAA's various depositions, Nesson has had to find local attorneys in three states in order to mount a defense against the piracy claims, Tenenbaum said. He added that Nesson's offer to defend him earlier this year has been a huge deal for him and his family. Prior to that, much of the legal work was being done by Tenenbaum's mother, who is a practicing lawyer but has little knowledge of copyright infringement laws.

Tenenbaum said Nesson's presence also means that he himself no longer has to face the RIAA's battery of lawyers. "They are very pushy, very unpleasant people to deal with," Tenenbaum said, adding that any attempt to push back at the lawyers was immediately portrayed as a lack of cooperation and met with threats that they would inform the judge. "Everything you said, they twisted," he claimed.

The RIAA's own description of events, contained in court filings, paints a slightly different picture. According to the trade group, Tenenbaum's parents received the pre-litigation notice only because a computer that was identified as being involved in illegal music sharing was traced back to their house.

The RIAA says that it rejected Tenenbaum's $500 settlement offer and his claims of financial hardship because its investigation showed that he had just purchased a $250,000 condo. (In response, Tenenbaum said he bought the condo after his settlement offer and financial-hardship claims were rejected.) And the trade group claims in its legal filings that it made several attempts to negotiate a settlement with Tenenbaum before filing the lawsuit against him.

Tenenbaum said that although online piracy is a problem, the larger issue lies with what he characterized as the music industry's continued insistence on seeing the Internet as a threat instead of as a tool that can transform the manner in which music is consumed.

"I don't think anybody thinks artists shouldn't be rewarded for their work," Tenenbaum said. But there are other ways to do so on the Net that the music industry has stubbornly refused to consider, he added. "They are still operating," he said, "on this outdated assumption of the Internet as a threat, a weapon that is being used against them."

(Editor's note: Two paragraphs in this story were updated at about 1:30 p.m. EST on Dec. 22. Information about a friend of Joel Tenenbaum's family was corrected in the 19th paragraph, and a comment from Tenenbaum responding to a claim made by the RIAA was added to the 23rd paragraph.)

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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