The news is making the rounds now, that the "RIAA 4" lawsuit for copyright infringements, against four students running network services, has been settled. I'd like to focus on the following paragraph:
The settlements will see each student making payments to the RIAA totaling between $12,000 and $17,000, split into annual installments between 2003 and 2006. The lawsuits as filed could have entailed damages (in theory) of up to $100 million.
I remember that I drew a lot of criticism for settling the Cyber Patrol break case "prematurely", or "at the first threat of a lawsuit", but that wasn't accurate - Mattel et al. actually never threatened me, they just went ahead and filed two lawsuits without stopping to make threats, and an injunction was issued and the cases got pretty far before I settled.
I remember the arguments that settlement sparked, as I got some grief myself for privately defending his decision. It's too easy to fight to the last drop of someone else's blood.
When I talk about how these problems have chilled my own censorware work, too often it's just ignored and dismissed, because it's not in people's experience. Maybe the real-world aspects are just starting to penetrate the mass net-mind now. This isn't a game.
In my view, these lawsuits tell us nothing new about the legal status of the kinds of general-purpose search engines these students were running. The lessons of these suits are simpler: (1) don't be a direct infringer, and (2) getting sued by the RIAA is expensive.
Now, I agree with those statements. But I'd like to amplify that these lawsuits do tell us something new - or at least reiterated - about who can afford to defend the legal status of such cases. That's the big problem. And too many people don't realize it. I quote Matthew Skala much on this point:
When we published the essay I didn't expect a lawsuit, but I had also thought, "Well, if there is a lawsuit it won't be a problem, because there are organizations that take care of things like that." I fondly imagined that in case of legal silliness, someone would just step in and say "We'll take it from here." What I found out was that those organizations, through no fault of their own, were able to give me a lot of sympathy and not enough of anything else, particularly money, to bring my personal risk of tragic consequences down to an acceptable level, despite, incredibly, the fact that what I had done was legal. Ultimately, I couldn't rely on anybody to deal with my problems but myself.
Some people learn that lesson a bit less impressively than I had to.
Too many people, especially techies, believe that someone is just going to step in and write a blank check for legal expenses. It's not going to happen. The implications which stem from this mistaken belief, however, are seriously debilitating. Just personally, I can't convey how much grief I've gotten from those under the mistaken notion that all I have to do is get sued, and the lawsuit-funding-fairy will appear. Or more generally, how much blather is based on the idea that someone else is going to do the legally-risky work (I call this the theory of the "Secret Society of Civil-Libertarian Circumventors"). THAT lesson, that there is no lawsuit-funding-fairy, and the consequences thereof, is profound.By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , copyblight , legal | on May 01, 2003 07:30 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups