Any There There? RIAA Agreements Remain Flimsy, Unconfirmed

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The RIAA is abandoning its strategy of suing individual file-swappers, and shifting towards ISP-level enforcement against infringers.

That was trumpeted by major labels over the pre-Christmas weekend, but a closer look reveals flimsy or nonexistent deals with ISPs, at least for now.  “We have agreements with some leading ISPs,” RIAA executive Jonathan Lamy vaguely told Digital Music News on Monday, December 22nd, without naming names.  “But not all.  And the agreements are on principle.”

That sounds rather unconvincing, and ISPs have traditionally resisted entertainment industry moves for greater subscriber enforcement. Over the past few years, the RIAA has frequently found itself battling access providers, especially over issues related to subscriber privacy and due process.

In that climate, will ISPs suddenly start removing accounts and issuing threatening letters?  The answer depends on the specific ISP involved, according to a preliminary canvass conducted by Digital Music News.  Ahead of the Christmas holiday, a number of US-based access providers were contacted, both through customer service and executive channels, specifically on the issue of warning letters and account terminations.

The results are still coming in, and many executives have been on holiday hiatus.  But service representatives at AT&T, Road Runner (Time Warner), United Online, Verizon, and Earthlink indicated that users account will not be terminated.

In fact, one of the largest ISPs, Verizon, told Digital Music News that a sweeping, stepped-up agreement with the RIAA simply does not exist.  “We have agreements with some copyright owners, and if they believe that their copyright has been abused, we will forward that complaint to a customer without disclosing the name of that customer,” said Eric Rabe, senior vice president of Media Relations at Verizon.  “We have a long history of judiciously protecting the identities of our customers.”

In other words, Verizon is not modifying existing agreements or subscriber protection policies that have been standing for years.  “The RIAA seems to be out there discussing these agreements, but we’re not aware of it, whatever it is,” Rabe continued.  “We understand that there must be respect for copyright, and that it is important for the development of content.  But we need some sort of balance, and there are procedures and laws in the courts now that allow copyright holders to take action.  If we receive a subpoena, we will respond.”

Verizon has revealed identities, usually under a direct court order, though the company has offered little more.  “A wholesale short-circuit of the legal system, or a system in which alleged copyright holders are handled in bulk – we have resisted that,” Rabe noted.  That also goes for a campaign that sends threatening letters to suspected infringers on a massive scale, one that would follow in the footsteps of a British multi-industry agreement.

Alternatively, AOL, Comcast, and Charter Communications representatives indicated that accounts will be terminated if copyrighted materials are shared over their networks.  “AOL and its affiliated companies respect the intellectual property of others,” a representative said.

Charter echoed the sentiment.  “Sharing and copying music which is unauthorized is like stealing,” a Charter employee stated.  A Qwest Communications representative indicated that accounts could be terminated in the event of copyright infringement, though further details were not offered.

And what are the other ISPs saying about warning letters?  Details on letters were more difficult to obtain, potentially because broader enforcement structures have not been implemented.  Other aspects, including slowdowns of offending accounts, remain undecided.  At best, this is part of an admitted work-in-progress by the RIAA, and any hope of ISP unanimity is probably too elusive to be true.