Experts: Administration Not Likely to Favor RIAA

Published March 1, 2009

President Barack Obama has tapped a high-profile legal defender of the music industry for a high-level position in the Justice Department, but experts think it’s unlikely Thomas Perrelli will use his influence to put the government consistently on the side of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Perrelli, who at press time was awaiting almost-certain Senate confirmation as associate attorney general, has been a managing partner of the Jenner & Block law firm since leaving government in 2001. One of his highest-profile cases came in 2003, when he represented SoundExchange, an industry umbrella group that collects royalties for music copyright holders.

Piracy Fighter

RIAA has spent the past several years aggressively cracking down on individuals who use peer-to-peer services to share digital music. The group has sued some 35,000 people since 2003 and has forced offenders to pay thousands of dollars in fines.

Still, some tech experts warn against viewing Perrelli’s legal work for RIAA as defining Obama’s policy on music piracy.

“I think far too much is being made of the fact that Perrelli had, among his other clients, the RIAA companies,” said Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The position he is taking at Justice is not likely to have much direct input on copyright policy since the department has no civil enforcement authority in copyright cases, and he will not be overseeing the criminal side of the department.

“In addition, work for the RIAA has not made up the bulk of his professional work, in contrast to many lawyers in Los Angeles and New York,” von Lohmann said.

Cutting Some Slack

Art Brodsky, communications director for Washington, DC-based “open” Internet advocates Public Knowledge, likewise doesn’t assume Perrelli will greatly sway the balance of power.

“Many of the copyright lawyers we know and respect are willing to cut him some slack for the moment, saying his reported devotion to the RIAA cause has been overblown and that he was representing clients,” Brodsky said. “That’s good enough for us now, but I remain skeptical and vigilant.”

Safeguards in Place

Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project in Washington, DC, says Perrelli would face institutional roadblocks to any attempts to use his authority on RIAA’s behalf.

“No one appointment, even to an upper level, at Justice determines the overall philosophy of the agency,” Schwartzman said. “More importantly, Tom Perrelli will be barred from participating in anything having to do with the activities of his private practice clients during his service. This limitation will be strictly enforced.”

Justin H. Kaiser ([email protected]) writes from the San Francisco area.