As if it weren't bad enough that the RIAA's lawsuits against file-sharers are futile, unfair, and immoral [PDF], they are also beginning to distort the law. In many of these cases, the recording industry is urging judges to accept controversial legal theories on the way to busting file sharers. It's not clear whether this is a tactical effort to cut legal corners to save money, or a strategic effort to build lower court precedents for use in other cases. Either way, these are frequently extremely unfair fights (such as in Atlantic v. Howell, where the defendant can't even afford a lawyer), and thus bad vehicles for making controversial new law. The judges simply aren't hearing both sides.

EFF is trying to do something about that.

Earlier this week, EFF filed an amicus brief [PDF] in Arista v. Does 1-21, a case against 21 Boston University students whose identities are being sought through a subpoena to the university. One of the anonymous students filed a motion to quash the subpoena, which is now pending before Judge Gertner in Boston. EFF filed the amicus brief on Monday, which was accepted by the judge yesterday.

EFF's brief in Arista v. Does 1-21 focuses on two issues that have been the subject of several EFF briefs in the past:

First Amendment Protection for Anonymous Speech: In many other cases, EFF has long fought hard to establish a baseline of constitutional protection for anonymous speech online. We've been successful, with courts recognizing that, where anonymous speech is concerned, you don't get to unmask someone just by having your lawyers file a meritless lawsuit in order to issue a subpoena. Instead, courts must make a preliminary inquiry to ensure that the suit has merit.

The RIAA, however, insists that their boilerplate complaints are enough to unmask anonymous file-sharers, even when completely unsupported by any specific evidence about the target. That's just flat wrong, as other courts have recognized [PDF]. But the RIAA keeps making the argument, without mentioning the First Amendment standard.

It may well be that the recording industry can meet the constitutional threshold here (as they have in other cases where they were forced to come forward with the evidence gathered by MediaSentry). But it's critical that the precedents don't get distorted to somehow treat copyright claims as exempt from the constitutional test that applies to every other sort of anonymous speech online. To understand the importance of consistently applying the right standard, imagine how this would work in a future case where a copyright owner was trying muzzle or intimidate an anonymous fair user (see, e.g., OPG v. Diebold, where Diebold tried to use bogus copyright claims to censor leaked documents off the Internet).

Distribution and "Making Available": In all of these cases, the recording industry is arguing that simply having a file in a shared folder makes you an infringer because you are "distributing" the file, even if no one has ever downloaded it from you. Huh? That sounds like attempted distribution, at best. That's not the law (and the Department of Justice has thus far failed in its efforts to change the Copyright Act to reach mere attempts).

This "making available" theory is wrong in two ways. First, as we've argued in other cases, distribution under the Copyright Act doesn't apply to electronic transmissions. Second, even if it does, the copyright owner has to prove that an actual distribution occurred it's not enough to say it could have happened.

This doesn't leave the recording industry without a weapon everyone agrees that file sharing involves the making of unauthorized copies of songs. It's just that the recording industry doesn't want to have to go to the trouble of gathering and introducing evidence of copying in court (like everyone else does). It's much easier to rely exclusively on MediaSentry's downloads from each defendant that way there is no need to know anything about the defendant.

The trouble with this is the precedent it sets for the future. Already, the recording industry has sued XM as a "distributor" because they transmit satellite radio to subscribers who have recording devices. The movie industry also pressed this "making available" theory against Google [PDF], reasoning that just linking to something online "makes it available." Fortunately, courts in these high profile cases have not taken the bait. But if the RIAA racks up a string of contrary precedents in file sharing cases, the next lawsuit against XM or Google might come out differently.

The trouble for those who are hoping to prevent these kinds of distorted precedents is that it's hard to keep up with all of the more than 20,000 lawsuits (and litigation threats) that have been brought by the recording industry. With any luck, one of the judges will sit down and write a strong opinion letting the RIAA know that it can't use overmatched file-sharers to reshape the law to their liking.