Verizon Ordered to Give Identity of Net SubscriberBy AMY HARMON
moothing 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"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
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