Appeals court rejects subpoenas to identify music downloaders

Friday, December 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal appeals court on Friday rejected efforts by the recording industry to compel the nation's Internet providers to turn over names of subscribers suspected of illegally swapping music online.

The ruling from a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was a dramatic setback for the industry's controversial anti-piracy campaign. It overturned the trial judge's decision to enforce a type of copyright subpoena from a law that predates the music downloading trend.

The appeals court said the 1998 law doesn't cover the popular file-sharing networks currently used by tens of millions of Americans to download songs.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act ``betrays no awareness whatsoever that Internet users might be able directly to exchange files containing copyrighted works,'' the court wrote.

The appeals judges said they sympathized with the recording industry, noting that ``stakes are large.'' But the judges said it was not the role of courts to rewrite the 1998 copyright law, ``no matter how damaging that development has been to the music industry or threatens being to the motion picture and software industries.''

The appeals ruling throws into question at least 382 civil lawsuits the recording industry filed since it announced its legal campaign nearly six months ago.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates had approved use of the subpoenas, forcing Verizon Communications Inc. to turn over names and addresses for at least four Internet subscribers. Since then, Verizon has identified dozens of its other subscribers to music industry lawyers.

The appeals court said one of the arguments by the Recording Industry Association of America ``borders upon the silly,'' rejecting the trade group's claims that Verizon was responsible for downloaded music because such data files traverse its network.

The law, passed years before downloading music over peer-to-peer Internet services became popular, compels Internet providers to turn over the names of suspected pirates upon subpoena from any U.S. District Court clerk's office. A judge's signature is not required. Critics contend judges ought to be more directly involved.

Verizon had argued at its trial that Internet providers should only be compelled to respond to such subpoenas when pirated music is stored on computers that providers directly control, such as a Web site, rather than on a subscriber's personal computer.

In his ruling, the trial judge wrote that Verizon's interpretation ``makes little sense from a policy standpoint,'' and warned that it ``would create a huge loophole in Congress' effort to prevent copyright infringement on the Internet.''