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Felten vs. RIAA Hearing 250

Posted by michael
from the scenic-trenton-new-jersey dept.
On Wednesday I attended a hearing in Felten vs. RIAA, the lawsuit filed by Professor Felten, other Princeton researchers, and USENIX against the RIAA, SDMI, Verance, and the Department of Justice. As you already know, the judge dismissed the case. But taking a look at the hearing might provide some insight into how the judicial system works.

An incredibly brief review of the case: SDMI created an open challenge to break various forms of technical restrictions they had designed to allow music publishers to control how people use legitimately purchased music. A team led by Felten participated and was mostly successful at breaking them. The team wrote a paper, intending to publish it at a scientific conference. The RIAA/SDMI sent a letter to Felten, his employer, and the conference threatening them with legal action. Private legal discussions and a very public flap broke out. Felten filed a pre-emptive lawsuit, seeking to have his right to publish vindicated without waiting for a suit from the RIAA or SDMI. Immediately afterward, the RIAA publicly and repeatedly withdrew their threat to sue. Eventually the paper was, in fact, published, but the suit has continued.

Or just read through the Slashdot stories.

On to yesterday's hearing. The judge has before him a request from the defense to dismiss the case - they state that there is no real issue since the threat has been withdrawn. The Plaintiffs oppose this - they feel the threat is real, even if the RIAA has now withdrawn it.

Each side is represented by a half-dozen attorneys. Felten and several of the other plaintiffs are present as well. There are four or five press representatives. Other than that, the courtroom is empty. The first thing the judge does is take care of some routine business - the plaintiffs have requested that a C program, tinywarp.c, be filed under judicial seal with the court. The judge accepts this. He then goes briefly over the case so far, saying that he feels fully briefed by the papers submitted by both sides. He invites the plaintiff's lawyer, Gino Scarselli, to speak and respond to the last set of papers filed by the defense, but cautions him to avoid repeating any of the arguments set forth already in the many papers filed.

Scarselli emphasizes that the plaintiffs are in court for more than just the single threatening letter - he notes that the threat of legal action was considered quite real by the universities, who assigned lawyers to deal with the threat. He notes that Felten's paper was described as a "recipe for circumvention" by the defendants. He says that Felten also fears criminal prosecution due to his desire to publish a paper on SDMI in Scientific American - since Scientific American pays for papers, unlike the conference, this makes publication of the paper a commercial enterprise which might be charged as a criminal violation of the DMCA.

The judge is rather skeptical. He states that the difference between Felten and Sklyarov is "night and day". Sklyarov's actions are clearly criminal to the judge - Felten's actions not at all.

Scarselli and the judge spar a bit over a possible amendment to the complaint, regarding what exactly the plaintiffs were seeking in the lawsuit, and Scarselli retires from battle. Next up is David Kendall for the RIAA, responding to Scarselli.

Kendall starts off by talking about a stipulation (an agreement on facts) that both parties were negotiating over. Apparently both sides had almost been able to reach an agreement, except that the RIAA wanted the agreement to include dismissing the lawsuit and the plaintiffs did not. Kendall moves on to emphasize the argument they are making - that the suit should be dismissed because there is no conflict between the RIAA/SDMI and Felten. There are three reasons why a suit might be dismissed in this fashion - for mootness, because the plaintiffs lack standing to bring the suit, or because the issue isn't ripe. The judge asks Kendall which of the three would apply to this case - Kendall disclaims mootness (because that implies there once was an issue, but no longer), and states that this could be dismissed under either of the other reasons.

Richard Phillips is called to speak for the Department of Justice. Phillips states that his argument has been covered by the papers submitted and sits back down.

At this point only 40 minutes or so has elapsed. Normally, the judge might now take the case for decision, then some time later issue a written decision - instead, he decides (obviously he planned to do this in advance, since he has notes prepared) to render his decision in the case orally and immediately. He notes that he's doing so to save both parties further time and trouble, which indicates that he agrees with the defense that the case should be dismissed.

The judge starts off with the basics, which must have been rather boring to the lawyers involved. Under the Constitution, courts are limited to deciding cases where there is an actual case or controversy. He states flat-out that he sees no case or controversy here, in case anyone in the courtroom missed the hint he's already given.

He now takes a deep breath and begins going through his notes. He recaps the case from the beginning. I'll spare you that, read the documents if you wish.

Finally we get to his analysis. There are two separate issues - is there a case against the private entities? Is there a case against the Federal Government? The judge looks at the private entities first.

Again he discusses the requirement that cases be limited to actual controversies, that judges can't rule on abstract, theoretical, or speculative cases. He uses the word "speculative" approximately 20 times during his opinion, always referring to the plaintiffs' case. He relates a rambling analogy about bank fraud, essentially saying that the plaintiffs were asking for blanket immunity against ever being sued or prosecuted, which was impossible. He covers in great detail the RIAA's retraction of their threatening letter, how they've plainly denied any desire to sue Felten or anyone else over Felten's original paper.

The judge now looks at the First Amendment considerations relating to the suit against the RIAA/SDMI. He notes that the courts are required to avoid Constitutional questions if at all possible. He also notes that according to case law on the subject, there must be a real and immediate threat, that must remain throughout litigation, in order for the courts to consider the Constitutional questions around a non-criminal law (that is, the part of the DMCA that doesn't involve criminal penalties, only the possibility of civil lawsuits). Since the threat has not remained throughout litigation, he sees no Constitutional questions relating to the non-criminal part of the DMCA. He also notes that Plaintiffs do not allege they intend to violate the statute [ed. note: I'm not sure which part of the DMCA the judge was talking about right now - he may have been getting ahead of himself and talking about the criminal penalties.] and thus proceeding further would be "pre-enforcement review", which is not permitted. He closes this section by saying that he finds the Step-Saver and Salvation Army cases (referred to in the briefs submitted by both parties) instructive.

Somewhere during this speech, one of the attorneys for SDMI starts grinning, hugely, as if his team has just won the Super Bowl. He continues grinning and looking over at the attorneys for the plaintiffs until the hearing is over. None of the other attorneys for either side show any particular reaction.

The judge now continues with the suit against the Federal Government for Constitutional violations. He notes that the plaintiffs have not been directly threatened by the Government, nor prosecuted. He contrasts Felten's situation with that of Dmitry Sklyarov - the plaintiffs don't sell their program to the public, they do it for scientific purposes. Again he mentions the Step-Saver case. He quotes from the DMCA extensively. He states that the Government and plaintiffs have no adverse legal interests - that is, there is no possible criminal threat to Felten for doing what he's doing, in the judge's opinion. He notes that in the Sklyarov case there is such an adverse legal interest - obviously, Sklyarov was imprisoned! - and suggests that the Sklyarov case is a better way to get any First Amendment consequences of the DMCA adjudicated by the courts. The plaintiffs are not "manufacturing", according to the judge; nor are they offering their code for sale. The judge segues to what he sees as deficiencies in the plaintiff's legal complaint - they did not assert they planned to fully violate the criminal sections of the DMCA, mainly their assertions were that the Act is unclear and vague. Finally he closes - the plaintiffs must have an "objectively reasonable fear" of prosecution in order for the required legal conflict to exist, and the judge sees no such objectively reasonable fear.

A few more sentences and he's done. He reminds everyone that he may revise his written/final opinion from what he just dictated. He doesn't provide a time-frame for when the written opinion might be expected.


And that's it. My impression is that the most important phrase in the decision is "night and day". Judge Brown saw Sklyarov as a pirate, well-deserving of a long imprisonment term, and Felten as a goodie-two-shoes scientist who didn't have a care in the world. The very factors that made Felten a "good" subject for a civil liberties case allowed the judge to rule that there wasn't a case at all. Both the Justice Department and the RIAA prefer to have their test cases with suitably unsavory defendants - Russian pirates and shady hacker magazines are much preferred over all-American Princeton professors. The RIAA won't make the mistake of sending threat letters to professors again - not until the DMCA issues have been well-settled in the courts, anyway. Some people have criticized the EFF for over-reaching - trying to make a case out of nothing. But to a great extent the civil liberties groups have to play with the hand they're dealt. Felten was legitimately threatened, and even if the RIAA saw their mistake and starting trying to weasel out of it, I can't fault the civil liberties groups for trying to pursue this. They plan to appeal, of course.

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Felten vs. RIAA Hearing

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