The RIAA’s campaign against filesharers follows a standard procedure: find a computer offering files for download, get a court to force the ISP or organization that provided the computer’s IP address to reveal the computer’s owner, and then sue the owner. The group has contracted with MediaSentry to do the work of identifying the infringing computers, but that company’s methods have been called into question in a number of states that have licensing requirements for private investigators that include the computer-based snooping required to gather the data. Michigan was one such state and, if there was any doubt about the licensing issue there, it’s gone now: the state passed a law that specifically calls for computer forensics groups to be licensed.
To an extent, the law is somewhat redundant. Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth is responsible for licensing private investigators and, in February, it determined that the company was acting as an unlicensed private investigator. The Department recommended that the anonymous state resident that filed the complaint contact his local prosecutor if he/she wanted to press the matter. Despite this ominous warning flag, the RIAA’s lawsuits in the state have continued apace.
But, if MediaSentry felt it could successfully challenge the Department of Labor’s decision if called on it, its chances of doing so dropped precipitously. In May, with no apparent notice, Michigan enacted a revision to its licensing requirements, entitled “An act to license and regulate professional investigators.” A reader of Recording Industry vs The People apparently did notice, and tipped off the blog; a copy (PDF) of the legislation is being hosted by intellectual property attorney Ray Beckerman.
The law is intended “to protect the general public against unauthorized, unlicensed and unethical operations by professional investigators.” It clearly doesn’t directly target MediaSentry; it was presumably in the works before the Department of Labor’s ruling, and includes provisions for CPAs and insurance adjusters, as well as covert surveillance and tracking devices.
Nevertheless, there are definitely clauses that put the company directly in the legal crosshairs. Those engaged in computer forensics are deemed to be in need of licensing, and that activity is defined as the collection of information “held on, or retrieved from, computers, computer networks, computer storage media, electronic devices, electronic storage media, or electronic networks, or any combination thereof.” Which is precisely what MediaSentry does on behalf of the RIAA.
So far, the RIAA appears to hope the matter never comes up in court. The cases it has filed continue to rely on its standard evidence-gathering procedures, and it has not responded to our request for comments on the matter. If someone does choose to take on its evidence-gathering methods in Michigan, however, the legislation is likely to make the decision even more one-sided than it previously was.