House Action on RIAA Subpoenas Unlikely

Despite the headlines coming out of the U.S. Senate last week about legislation to roll back the subpoena power provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it appears unlikely Congress will take any action to lessen the authority of the music industry to issue bulk subpoenas to obtain the names of alleged online pirates.

The landmark 1998 DMCA allows copyright holders to issue subpoenas to Internet service providers (ISPs) demanding the name, address and telephone numbers of ISP subscribers suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted material. The subpoenas can be filed prior to any charges of infringement, are not subject to a review by a judge, and requires no notice to, or opportunity to be heard by, the alleged infringer.

The constitutionality of the subpoenas was heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last week and Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) introduced a bill requiring the owners of digital media products to file an actual case in a court of law in order to obtain the identifying information of an ISP subscriber.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, California’s Barbara Boxer voiced opposition to Brownback’s bill and later that afternoon, Rep. Lamar Smith (R.-Tex.), responding to a reporter’s question during a press conference by the Republican High Tech Working Group, said House action on the DMCA is not likely.

“We don’t feel it (DMCA) needs to be revisited,” Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, said.

Earlier this year, the RIAA, which served the first DMCA subpoenas on Verizon in July of 2002, won a district court decision forcing the company to reveal the names of two subscribers the RIAA suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted songs. Since then, the RIAA has issued more than 1,500 of the subpoenas to Internet service providers.

Those subpoenas led to 261 civil lawsuits being filed by the RIAA last week against alleged copyright infringers. Verizon is appealing the decision, claiming the RIAA is unfairly using the subpoenas.

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