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It looks like P2P is not the only type of “file-sharing” going on at universities today. The plaintiffs in this case alleged that a number of unknown college students had used the internet service providers on campus to download or distribute copyrighted material using various peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. To determine the students’ identities, the plaintiffs requested permission under Fed. R. Civ. P. 45 to serve subpoenas on Yale University and the University of Connecticut to compel production of the unknown defendants’ true names, their current and permanent addresses and telephone numbers, their e-mail addresses, and their Media Access Control (“MAC”) addresses.
The court began by noting that expedited discovery of such information from a third party is appropriate only upon a showing of “good cause.” To establish good cause, the party seeking discovery must show the need for expedited discovery, in consideration of the administration of justice, outweighs any prejudice to the responding party. Such a showing generally requires a plaintiffs to demonstrate (1) irreperable injury would otherwise result, (2) some probability of success on the merits, (3) some connection between the expedited discovery and avoidance of the irreperable injury, and (4) the risk of injury that might result without expedited discovery looms larger than the risk of injury that might result if discovery were granted. See 589 F. Supp. at 152 (citing Semitool, Inc. v. Tokyo Electronic Am., Inc., 208 F.R.D. 273, 276 (N.D. Cal. 2002). Where the responding party is a college or university, however, the plaintiff must also demonstrate the responding party is authorized to respond to the proposed subpoena under the Family Educational Rigths and Privacy Act (“FERPA”). Id.
Citing the actions of other courts ruling on similar facts, the court concluded the plaintiffs had good cause for expedited discovery of limited, personally identifying information associated with the unknown defendants’ individual IP addresses. Id. As for the FERPA requirement, the court noted FERPA expressly authorizes disclosure of a student’s “directory information” when faced with a lawfully issued court order or subpoena. Such information, the court explained, includes a student’s name, address, telephone listing, e-mail address, and “other identifying information.” Furthermore, the court explained, a student’s MAC address is not part of the student’s educational records and its disclosure, therefore, is not restricted by FERPA. This meant the FERPA did not restrict the universities’ ability to provide the information that the plaintiffs requested in an expedited fashion.
In determining whether expedited discovery was appropriate, the court noted, first, that learning the true identities of the pseudonymous defendants was essential to the plaintiffs’ prosecution of their claims. Expedited discovery of such information, therefore, was necessary for the plaintiffs to avoid irreparable injury to what might otherwise prove to be succesful litigation. Finally, by restricting the expedited discovery to the defendants’ directory information and MAC addresses only, there was little, if any, chance of prejudice to the defendants in the case. The court, therefore, granted the plaintiffs leave to subpoena the universities for this information as it pertained to each of the unknown defendants.
Patrick J. Ryan is a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law. He has focused much of his training and legal education on bankruptcy and state law insolvency proceedings.