Yet another court ruling in the ongoing controversy of online file-sharing rocked the boat of song-swappers everywhere and may have sent two suspected pirates up the proverbial river.
On Thursday in Washington, D.C., a federal district court judge ordered Verizon Internet Services to surrender to the recording industry the names of two subscribers, one of whom is believed to have illegally traded up to 600 copyrighted songs a day, according to court papers.
Judge John Bates rejected the argument by the ISP, a branch of the Verizon Communications phone company, saying that it didn't have to turn over the names of the subscribers on First Amendment grounds. He reasoned that the harm in protecting the alleged pirates' anonymity far outweighed the damage being done to the copyright-holding labels, which are represented by the Recording Industry Association of America.
"A federal district court has again affirmed that the law which provides copyright holders with a process to identify infringers is both constitutional and appropriate," said RIAA president Cary Sherman in written statement. "If users of pirate peer-to-peer sites don't want to be identified, they should not break the law by illegally distributing music. Today's decision makes clear that these individuals cannot rely on their ISPs to shield them from accountability."
Judge Bates gave Verizon 14 days to appeal, and attorneys for the company indicated it would.
At the center of this debate is a provision of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, an increasingly outdated law drafted to protect copyrights online. It states that copyright holders, like the RIAA, have the power to subpoena the names of those suspected of infringing on orders from any U.S. district court clerk's office, without a judge's signature. The copyright act has come under fire in recent years because much of the technology now under scrutiny, such as peer-to-peer file-sharing services, was not developed at the time the bill was enacted into law.
The RIAA issued Verizon the subpoena in July, and Judge Bates' decision on Thursday upheld the provision, which Verizon contested as unconstitutional in October (see "Can Your ISP Rat You Out For File-Sharing? A Judge To Decide").
Last week, the Department of Justice filed a brief that said the subpoena did not violate any constitutional laws.
In court, Verizon argued that authorizing the provision would make it easy for criminals to get people's identity online by drumming up a phony charge and filling out a one-page application for the subpoena. Judge Bates determined that the risk of that was minimal because one must provide reasonably sufficient evidence that copyright infringement was taking place to be granted the subpoena.