The New York Times The New York Times Technology January 22, 2003  

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Verizon Ordered to Give Identity of Net Subscriber


Smoothing the way for the entertainment industry to pursue people who trade music and movies online, a federal judge ordered Verizon Communications yesterday to give a record industry trade group the identity of an Internet subscriber suspected of making available unauthorized copies of several hundred songs.

In the closely watched case, the Recording Industry Association of America argued that it had the right to invoke a legal shortcut compelling Internet service providers to turn over subscriber information without requiring a copyright holder to file a lawsuit.


Verizon argued that the shortcut was meant to apply to only a narrow set of circumstances and that its broad use would violate its subscribers' privacy and due process rights. The company had refused to comply with a subpoena.

But Judge John D. Bates of the Federal District Court in Washington wrote that Verizon's position "would create a huge loophole in Congress's effort to prevent copyright infringement on the Internet." Verizon said it would appeal the ruling.

The record industry, which holds online piracy responsible for much of the precipitous decline in CD sales in recent years, has so far largely limited its lawsuits to companies it sees as aiding large-scale copyright infringement, like Napster and KaZaA. But lately industry officials have signaled that they are preparing to pursue some of the millions of people who infringe copyrights using the Internet.

Judge Bates's ruling may play a pivotal role in allowing the industry to do that, legal experts said yesterday. "The court's decision has troubling ramifications for consumers, service providers and the growth of the Internet," said Sara Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel for Verizon. "It opens the door for anyone who makes a mere allegation of copyright infringement to gain complete access to private subscriber information without the due process protections afforded by the courts."

Until now, the entertainment industry has largely used the fast-track subpoena process to request information on people who post copyrighted material on individual Web sites that reside on computers owned by an Internet service provider. This time, however, the recording industry group asked for information on someone who was distributing material from a personal computer using the popular file-trading program KaZaA, rather than a central server.

The record industry association estimates that about 2.6 billion files are illegally downloaded each month by users of such programs. The file-trading programs have become the preferred way to obtain music — and, increasingly, video files — in part because they provide a high degree of anonymity to people distributing the material.

Anyone who can connect to the Internet from home can place files in a "shared folder," and simply by running one of the sharing programs make material available to millions of users who search for it. Judge Bates's ruling, the recording industry said, would prevent people from shielding themselves with this type of software.

"We appreciate the court's decision, which validates our interpretation of the law," Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said in a statement. "The illegal distribution of music on the Internet is a serious issue for musicians, songwriters and other copyright owners."

The 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, provided copyright holders the ability to circumvent the normal judicial process in pursuing violators. But it also gave Internet service providers immunity from liability for copyright infringement on their networks in exchange for their cooperation in immediately removing infringing material once they were notified and in turning over subscriber information.

Verizon argues that the bargain was not intended to get service providers to police subscribers who used their own computers to perform illegal acts. Some legal experts said the ruling could allow copyright holders to privately threaten people who might have a defense but lack the resources to fight the entertainment industry.

"I'm concerned about the number of enforcement actions that don't ever get to court," said Jessica Litman, author of "Digital Copyright" (Prometheus, 2001) and a law professor at Wayne State University. "It's one thing to say I want this person's identity so I can file suit. It's another thing to say I want this person's identity so I can interfere with their connectivity to the Internet."

Technology Briefing | Copyright: Accord On Digital Sharing  (January 14, 2003) 

Pete Townshend, the Who's Guitarist, Is Arrested  (January 14, 2003)  $

Music Industry Braces for a Shift  (January 13, 2003)  $

TECHNOLOGY; Hitachi Has New Plans And New Unit For Drives  (January 6, 2003)  $

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