Reflecting Harvard: a bike passes through Cambridge. Photo (CC) sandcastlematt.

Music DRM may be a thing of the past, online sales may be growing, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. record industry has missed a beat in its ongoing legal and lobbying campaign against music piracy online.

The latest battle starts today in Rhode Island federal court. The difference this time: the RIAA and record companies will have to face a Harvard Law prof and his students. Prof. Charles Nesson and his team allege the industry is abusing the court system, unfairly making “examples” out of the people they’re suing, and invading privacy.

Whatever your feelings about the righteousness of litigation as a deterrent to piracy, the case in particular gets pretty strange. Rhode Island residents Arthur and Judie Tenenbaum face having their home computer seized as evidence, despite the fact that even the industry legal team doesn’t contend this particular computer was used for the alleged downloading. The couple’s son faces a stunning $1 million+ in possible damages, but only allegedly shared seven songs on Kazaa – and the couple didn’t even own the computer when their son lived with them.

The team will be up for interviews, so I’ll try to follow up – let us know if you have questions for them. More here:

RIAA v. Joel Tenenbaum @ the blog CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion [Harvard Law]

Updated: Early word is that the hearing has been rescheduled, Prof. Nesson isn’t admitted to argue in a Rhode Island court, and the judge (rightfully) denied the RIAA motion to look at Joel Tenenbaum’s parents’ computer, since it wasn’t involved. More official details forthcoming.

In other news, Jim Griffin of Warner Music Group continues to push a plan to offer a blanket license to campuses to avoid litigation by allowing students to pay a voluntary monthly fee to download music from file sharing services. It’s not entirely clear to me why this scheme continues to attack such ire online. Ars Technica rightfully says hold the kneejerk responses and wait for the details. There’s certainly a precedent: clubs, bars, concert venues, and the like already pay blanket license fees for performance rights, and the revenue is ultimately distributed to the people who own the work (think publishers and writers). That’s not to say the plan isn’t rife with potential problems, and it seems to me could even endanger efforts to encourage things like Creative Commons licensing. But without more details, it’s tough to criticize the idea without taking into account both its pitfalls and potential.

One thing everyone ought to be able to agree on, perhaps even some of the beleaguered record labels: ongoing litigation has been ugly and unproductive, and still doesn’t solve the underlying problem. With broad wireless Internet access on the horizon, even if I were to play devil’s advocate and assume I was an RIAA member wanting to stop campus sharing, it seems just scaring campuses into blocking these services isn’t really a solution.

And as artists, our primary concern ought to be that these responses aren’t doing what we most desperately need: establishing a real business model and promotional possibilities for emerging distribution online.