Panel discusses RIAA

Michael R. Fitzgerald Feb 20, 2006

Analogies flew fast and furious at the Public Debate on Electronic File Sharing hosted by the University of Pittsburgh last Friday.

In an October article, The Tartan reported that an undisclosed amount of students were facing subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America (“RIAA returns to campus,” Oct. 10, 2005). Now, four months later, the University of Pittsburgh invited two involved attorneys to discuss the issue in a public forum.

For their annual “Computer Science Day,” the University of Pittsburgh invited two experts to work with two undergraduate debate all-stars in an event that moderator Gordon Mitchell, an associate professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh, hoped would “move past the battle-royale pyrotechnics that you see on Hardball with Chris Matthews or Crossfire.”

The event was legitimized by the participation of Geoffrey L. Beauchamp, an attorney for the RIAA’s own law counseling firm, Conrad O’Brien Gellman & Rohn, and Charles Lee Mudd, president of the Charles Mudd Law Offices, which has represented several defendants in file-sharing lawsuits.

Two distinguished University of Pittsburgh debaters, junior political science major Tony DiMattio and junior history and philosophy major Melina Forte, were paired with the attorneys.

DiMattio worked with Mudd in support of the proposal under debate: “Lawsuits against individual P2P users should be sharply curtailed.” Forte and Beauchamp worked against this idea together.

“In March 2004, the RIAA shifted tactics from a focus on sites such as Napster to a focus on the individuals downloading,” Mudd said in his opening speech.

He detailed one client’s involvement with the issue: After a girl’s brother was killed in gang violence, she inherited his laptop. Before she ever used the computer, her brother had used Kazaa to download songs. The client took the computer to college with her, where she was then subpoenaed for the songs that had been previously downloaded.

“Even with a death certificate, the RIAA would not drop the suit. They are ruthless,” Mudd said. Mudd suggested that, at the very least, a warning should be sent to perpetrators, giving them a chance to cease and desist before the courts should become involved.

“I hope that from this debate, people walk away with the sense that there are a lot of players there,” said Mudd, referring to the collective actions of file-sharing programs, file-sharers, program developers, and the recording industry itself.

“I must be popular,” quipped Beauchamp to begin his opening statement, referring to his association with the RIAA. The crowd applauded his statements, regardless of any resentful undercurrents.

“It is wrong,” he said, referring to the indisputable fact that downloading copyrighted material, in any form or medium, is illegal. His arguments centered around this concept.

Beauchamp repeatedly compared the music industry on the Internet to a shopkeeper in a bad neighborhood.

“Smith & Barney reports that $5.4 billion has been lost to downloading,” Forte informed the crowd. She also pointed out that statistics could not accurately tell how much downloading would occur without the lawsuits.

“These lawsuits fail to account for individual circumstances,” DiMattio said.

At the end of the debate, the crowd was invited to ask questions to the debate panel. One audience member compared laws in some countries that will chop off shoplifters’ arms to lawsuits in the U.S. that cost individuals thousands of dollars for downloading a few songs.

When asked afterwards, three of the four participants said they support the side for which they debated. Forte was the only exception.