In November 2010, Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized dozens of domain names allegedly connected to copyright infringement. One of them, hip-hop blog Dajaz1, lay in limbo for more than a year after its lawyer was stalled at every turn in his quest for information. Eventually the domain was given back, but why the delay? Unsealed court papers reveal that after effectively ordering the takedown, the RIAA failed to deliver any evidence of infringement.
By late 2010, the U.S. Government’s Operation in Our Sites was in full swing. Domain names, considered property under the same forfeiture laws used to seize material items connected to criminal activity, were being swept up left and right in the name of protecting American jobs.
Among them was DaJaz1.com, a hip-hop focused site from which a Special Agent Andrew Reynolds said he’d downloaded pre-release music. Of course, Reynolds didn’t find the site on his own. He’d been directed there by the RIAA who, for their own reasons, had chosen to target Dajaz1 over the thousands of other sites online.
The rhetoric was familiar. According to the authorities, who were being spoon-fed by the labels, Dajaz1 was a criminal enterprise sucking the lifeblood from the US music business by leaking tracks before their street date. But as later became clear, behind the scenes the site was being fed music to leak by the labels in order to create buzz and generate sales.
Last December, after lying in limbo for more than a year, Dajaz1′s domain was suddenly returned, astonishingly because the Feds had come to the conclusion there was no case to answer. But for the five months since up until this week, court papers have remained sealed, thus hiding the reasons the Dajaz1 case became such a disaster.
Now, thanks to pressure from EFF, the First Amendment Coalition, and Wired, the documents were unsealed Wednesday. They reveal an embarrassment for the US Government, the RIAA and due process.
For a year, DaJaz1 lawyer Andrew P. Bridges tried and failed to have the Dajaz1 domain seizure overturned. At every step he was obstructed and delayed. When he asked for copies of the documentation requesting the extension to the forfeiture procedure and the court’s documentation granting it, each and every time he was denied and told the papers were under seal.
It now appears that all along, despite claiming to have a good enough case to label Dajaz1 a criminal enterprise, the U.S. Government had no usable evidence. The proof was supposed to be supplied by the RIAA but it failed to arrive in quality or in a timely fashion.
In July 2011, the Department of Homeland Security asked for more time to build the case against the site, noting that content from the Dajaz1 website had been sent to rightsholders for “evaluation” but had not been returned.
But in September 2011 they were back again, seeking a further extension for exactly the same reasons. The RIAA, named in the newly unsealed court papers, weren’t coming up with the goods. Eventually the Government conceded defeat and handed the domain back.
“The records confirm what was already suggested by the initial affidavit used to obtain the seizure order: that ICE, and its attorneys, are effectively acting as the hired gun of the content industry at taxpayers’ expense,” the EFF said in a statement.
“Instead of relying on rightsholders to determine whether a seizure was appropriate, the government should have been conducting its own thorough investigation. If it had acted in anything like good faith, it could have determined that the site wasn’t a proper target even before the seizure, or at least could have discovered and rectified the mistake before a year had passed.”
In the whole copyright infringement / piracy debate there is a lot of fiery rhetoric from both sides but this case is truly scary. To have Dajaz1′s domain seized and the site effectively shut down without being in receipt of the proper evidence is unforgivable. Worst still, the parties that caused this to happen remain unaccountable, free to do the same again.