Reactions are mixed from schools and colleges around the United States to the recording industry’s aggressive new efforts to target file-sharing students as copyright violators, but two major universities now have gone to court at least to slow the process down.

Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have moved to quash subpoenas seeking the names of students suspected of internet music piracy, saying the subpoenas are illegal because they weren’t filed properly.

The schools said the subpoenas, issued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), didn’t allow for adequate time to notify the students, as mandated by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said on July 22 the school did not object to providing the information.

“We’re not trying to protect our students from the consequences of copyright infringement,” he said. “Once the subpoenas are properly filed, we will comply with the subpoenas.”

Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the RIAA, said the association was “disappointed that these universities have chosen to litigate this and thus deny us and other copyright holders the rights so clearly granted by Congress.”

Lamy said the association followed federal law when it filed the subpoenas.

This spring, following a challenge by Verizon Communications Inc., a federal judge affirmed the constitutionality of a law allowing music companies to force internet providers to release the names of suspected music pirates upon subpoena from any federal court clerk’s office. Verizon has appealed.

The recording industry association has filed at least 900 subpoenas in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., demanding information from universities and internet service providers about users of the online file-sharing network KaZaA.

The subpoenas are part of a new strategy to jolt internet music fans to stop file-sharing by pursuing small-time downloaders along with heavier users. (See “Music industry threatens to sue illegal file-swappers,”

The subpoenas request the names and numbers of one MIT student and three Boston College students who allegedly obtained the music under various screen names.

BC argued in a motion to quash the subpoenas filed July 21 that the subpoenas broke federal law because they were served in Boston, more than 100 miles from where they were filed in federal court in Washington.

It also said the subpoenas gave the schools less than a week to produce the information–too little time to properly notify the students under the privacy act.

In a statement, MIT didn’t specify why it believed the subpoenas were illegal, but also cited the privacy act to explain why it filed a motion to quash the subpoenas. The school said its decision didn’t mean it was taking sides in the debate over downloading music on the internet for free.

“But we are required by federal law to disclose student information only if we have a valid subpoena and have given the necessary advance notice,” James Bruce, vice president for information systems at MIT, said in a statement. An MIT spokesman said the school would have no further comment.

Not all schools that have received subpoenas are fighting them. Boston-area Northeastern University spokesman Rick Mickool said school officials would provide the name of the one student subpoenaed. He said the university’s legal counsel had no objection.

Others join the fray

Boston College and MIT aren’t the only organizations taking exception to the RIAA’s new strong-arm tactics.

SBC Communications Inc. is joining the fray with a lawsuit of its own, which questions the constitutionality of the RIAA’s latest efforts. And the chairman of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations began an inquiry July 31 into the industry’s crackdown against music swappers, calling the campaign “excessive.”

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, SBC unit Pacific Bell Internet Services echoed many of Boston College’s complaints in alleging that several of the subpoenas served against it by the RIAA were done so improperly. The company sells SBC’s internet service in California.

“The action taken by SBC … is intended to protect the privacy of our customers,” said SBC spokesman Larry Meyer. “Misapplication of … subpoena power raises serious constitutional questions that need to be decided by the courts, not by private companies which operate without duty of due diligence or judicial oversight.”

In a letter to RIAA President Cary Sherman, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., criticized the group for issuing subpoenas to “unsuspecting grandparents whose grandchildren have used their personal computers” and others who might not know their computer is being used to download music.

Coleman asked the RIAA to furnish him with a list of its subpoenas; its safeguards against invading privacy and making erroneous subpoenas; its standards for issuing subpoenas; and a description of how it collects evidence of illegal file sharing.

The RIAA said it would be “pleased” to provide the information Coleman requested. “It will confirm that our actions are entirely consistent with the law as enacted by the U.S. Congress and interpreted by the courts,” the group said in a statement.

See these related links:

Boston College

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Recording Industry Association of America

Sen. Norm Colemans office