December 5, 2020

Bring on the Subpoena-Bots!

A few years ago I was summoned for jury duty. The summons was an old-fashioned computer-printed document spit out by an IBM mainframe computer down at the county courthouse. Procedural rules required that prospective jurors be chosen by an officer of the court, so a judge had apparently deputized the mainframe as an officer of the court. For some reason I found this concept, of a computer as deputized legal officer, endlessly amusing.

Now the same concept is being applied at the Federal level. But in this case the computer isn’t even owned and run by the court. It’s run by the recording industry.

The recording industry, you see, is barraging the Federal courts with requests for subpoenas to compel Internet Service Providers to identify their customers who are alleged to be offering copyrighted music for download. Seth Schoen has read many of these subpoenas and he reports that “they’re obviously generated by a script”, that is, by a computer program.

Congress created the special subpoena provision that the RIAA is using here, a provision that requires the court to rubber-stamp any subpoena request made by a copyright holder who claims to have a good-faith belief that its copyrights are being infringed. Given this relatively low standard for issuance of a subpoena, the advent of subpoena-bots should come as no surprise.

Of course, big copyright owners aren’t the only people allowed to use subpoena-bots. Virtually everything that anybody writes is copyrighted, so this subpoena power is available to every writer or artist, even down to the humblest newbie blogger. Want to know who that anonymous critic is? No problem; send your subpoena-bots after them.