The Department of Justice intervened in an ongoing copyright infringement case today on behalf of the recording industry, continuing the Bush Administration’s defense of harsh civil penalties for individuals involved in peer-to-peer internet sharing.
The administration, filing a motion to intervene in favor of the plaintiff in Massachusetts district court case Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum, defended the ability of record companies to sue individuals who leak content online for statutory damages that can be more than a thousand times larger than the cost of the initial crime. The Bush administration had taken a similar stance in 2007, when it had intervened in Capitol v. Thomas, arguing that a $222,000 fine for illegally downloading 24 songs passed Constitutional muster.
The move comes as a surprise to supporters of Obama who thought the new administration would change the former president’s support of restrictive copyright infringement penalties. Proponents of more permissive copyright law, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt and noted Internet activist Lawrence Lessig, had praised Obama during the campaign for his support of less stringent regimes like Creative Commons.
As President, however, Obama has not garnered the same applause from opponents of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), after appointing two former copyright lawyers to top positions in the Justice Department. Tom Perrelli, who represented the RIAA in private practice at Jenner & Block, was recently confirmed as associate attorney general, the number three position at DOJ. Another Jenner & Block partner, Donald Verrilli, who represented Viacom in their copyright infringement case against YouTube and the RIAA, was named associate deputy attorney general. Verrilli, for his part, withdrew from involvement in the case last week, citing a perceived conflict of interest. But critics see a connection between the appointments and the Obama administration’s decision to intervene.