PORTLAND – A pair of students at the University of Maine School of Law are taking up the fight for two of 27 unidentified students being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, which maintains they downloaded music illegally from the Internet.

UMaine’s law clinic is the first university legal aid office to take up the battle against the recording industry, according to Ray Beckerman, a New York attorney who follows RIAA cases nationwide.

The two student lawyers, Hannah Ames and Lisa Chmelecki, are part of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, which allows third-year law students to gain legal experience while providing legal services for clients with low incomes, including college students.

Ames and Chmelecki, a former reporter for the Sun Journal, have been sworn in before the court and practice under the supervision of a faculty member who must sign off on their briefs before they are filed with the court.

On Oct. 27, RIAA, a trade group protecting the financial interests of 15 recording industry giants, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bangor against the UMaine students. That lawsuit, however, doesn’t name individual students, only network addresses for university computers allegedly used to download songs without paying for them.

According to Deidre Smith, an associate law professor and faculty supervisor for the legal clinic, RIAA’s legal strategy is to file vague, “boilerplate” lawsuits against the students, each of whom is listed as “John Doe” with a number.

By filing the lawsuit, Smith said the group can subpoena the university to provide the names of the students. If the subpoena is successful, Smith said the industry typically drops the generic lawsuit, and then files specific ones against the students, who must either settle out of court or defend the charges.

“These are people who can’t afford an attorney, and they’re being sued,” Smith said. “They are facing potentially a significant liability.”

The University of Maine refused to provide RIAA with the names, Smith said, and informed the students that their information was being sought by the recording industry.

It was at that point that two students approached the legal clinic for help.

“This isn’t something we were looking to get involved in,” Smith said. She declined to provide the students’ names because that is the information being sought by the recording industry.

Smith said the case allows student attorneys to get a taste of how a federal court operates. Typically, student attorneys handle cases involving domestic violence, child custody and juvenile justice, which are heard in state court.

“There was a need identified, and we thought it would be a great learning opportunity for our students,” Smith said.

The student attorneys, however, aren’t the only ones learning. Smith said the students have a firm understanding of the technology being used to download songs from the Internet. “I didn’t even know what Limewire was,” Smith said of one service that allows people to share and download songs without paying for them.

On Dec. 21, Ames and Chmelecki filed their motion to have the RIAA lawsuit dismissed. Smith said the motion was based on a May 21 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states legal complaints can’t be too general and had to include “plausible allegations.”

Smith said that ruling has already led to the dismissal of at least one lawsuit filed by the recording industry.

“We know of at least one occasion where a motion to dismiss has been granted on the basis of the pleadings being too boilerplate and too vague,” she said.

Smith expects a court ruling on the students’ motion to dismiss the charges within the next two months.

She also said interest generated by the students’ involvement has caught her by surprise.

“In other respects, this case is no different from the hundreds of others we take each year,” she said, “in that our clients have a legal problem, but cannot afford an attorney.”


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