Verizon Ordered to Give Identity of Net Subscriber
NYT January 22, 2003
By AMY HARMON
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 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
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
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."