June 21, 2007, 03:55 PM ET
A Judge Jettisons 'John Doe' Subpoenas
When the Recording Industry Association of America started filing “John Doe” subpoenas to ascertain the names of campus song-swapping suspects, some lawyers complained about the process. Ex parte discovery tactics — in which John Does are often unaware that they are subpoena subjects — should be reserved for extreme circumstances, the critics argued.
In fact, several people identified in the John Doe subpoenas have tried making that case in court, but judges have routinely slapped the argument down. Until now, that is: A U.S. District Court judge has told the RIAA it cannot use the John Doe method to uncover the names of 16 suspected music pirates at the University of New Mexico, according to the blog Recording Industry vs. The People.
“Plaintiffs contend that unless the Court allows ex parte immediate discovery, they will be irreparably harmed,” wrote Lorenzo F. Garcia, a magistrate judge in the New Mexico district court. “While the Court does not dispute that infringement of a copyright results in harm, it requires a Coleridgian ‘suspension of disbelief’ to accept that the harm is irreparable, especially when monetary damages can cure any alleged violation. On the other hand, the harm related to disclosure of confidential information in a student or faculty member’s Internet files can be equally harmful.”
Mr. Garcia’s ruling may well embolden more defendants to challenge the John Doe subpoenas, but is this a watershed moment? That’s hard to say. Slyck makes the case that the decision is a “critical setback” for the recording industry, but an RIAA official who spoke with the Web site didn’t seem too worried.
Basically, Mr. Garcia ordered lawyers with the industry trade group and the university to hash out a subpoena process that notifies John Does before their names are turned over. If more judges made similar demands, that could get expensive for the RIAA. But in this instance, the trade group might just face a bit of a delay before it moves ahead with lawsuits against the 16 students. —Brock Read