RealTime IT News

High Court Bounces Latest RIAA Effort

The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected the music industry's effort to revive a controversial practice that briefly forced ISPs to reveal the identities of thousands of accused peer-to-peer (P2P) music pirates with no notice to the alleged infringers.

In denying a writ of certiorari to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the court upheld a December 2003 decision by an appeals court that reversed a lower court ruling ordering ISPs (ISPs) to comply with the subpoena provision of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Under the DMCA, a subpoena can be issued by a court clerk who only checks to make sure the subpoena form is properly filled out. This differs from a standard subpoena, which requires some underlying claim of a crime.

On the basis of the lower court ruling, the RIAA issued more than 3,000 subpoena requests to ISPs and filed almost 400 copyright infringement actions.

Verizon initially resisted complying with the DMCA subpoena requests filed by the RIAA. A district court ruled in favor of the RIAA, but Verizon ultimately prevailed. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the DMCA did not authorize copyright holders to obtain a subpoena requiring the release of the name, address and telephone number of any Internet user based solely upon the filing of a one-page form that had not been reviewed by a judge.

"Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the personal privacy, First Amendment rights to free speech and free association, and the safety of every Internet user in this country," Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate counsel for Verizon, said in a statement.

Deutsch, who argued Verizon's case before the appeals court, added, "The Supreme Court's action is a victory for consumers, for the Internet and its continued growth, and it marks the end of a dangerous and illegal subpoena campaign that threatened the constitutional rights of all Americans."

The RIAA responded with an e-mail comment from Stanley Pierre-Louis, senior vice president of Legal Affairs.

"Today's decision will not deter our ongoing anti-piracy efforts. The 'John Doe' litigation process we have successfully utilized this year continues to be an effective legal tool."

Verizon originally argued that the DMCA subpoena only applied in cases where an ISP stored the copyrighted material on its servers. Because people using P2P networks store the material on their own hard drives, Verizon said it was exempt from the DMCA subpoena. Verizon subsequently questioned the actual constitutionality of the DMCA subpoena, privacy rights violations, the potential dangers of the subpoena being misused by non-copyright holders and even the future growth of the Internet.

"This decision means copyright holders and their representatives -- or identity thieves and stalkers posing as copyright holders -- will not be allowed to obtain personal information about Internet users by simply filing a one-page form with a court clerk," Deutsch said.

"The Supreme Court has now finally shut a door that was otherwise left wide open to false accusations, negligent mistakes, as well as to identity thieves and stalkers, who could use the cursory subpoena process to obtain the name, address, and telephone number of any Internet user in the country -- without the user even knowing about it."

The December 2003 appeals court decision forced the RIAA to use the more conventional "John Doe" subpoena request that requires a judge's consent. Using the John Doe subpoenas, the RIAA has continued to sue thousands of alleged P2P file-swappers.

"This decision reaffirms the fact that a legitimate process for legal recourse already exists -- the John Doe lawsuit -- and that the RIAA should follow it. We are pleased that the RIAA has already changed its copyright enforcement and business practices to conform to this recognized approach, which ensures that due process is protected before an Internet user's personal information can be obtained by anyone who seeks it," Deutsch said.

The Supreme Court also handed Verizon and the other Baby Bells another legal victory Tuesday when it refused to hear several appeals to force the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to permit long distance and competitive local exchange carriers to lease Bell lines at a discount.

A lower court ruling earlier this year rejected the FCC's effort to force line sharing on the Bells.