Court rejects RIAA request to identify song-swappers

A U.S. appeals court has rejected a tactic used by the music industry to identify alleged file-swappers in order to sue them, marking the second time a federal court has struck down subpoenas that seek names of Internet service provider (ISP) subscribers.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Tuesday overturned a Missouri district court ruling that ordered ISP Charter Communications Inc. to turn over about 200 subscriber names to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

The court's decision will not stop the RIAA from filing lawsuits against unnamed peer-to-peer users, however. The association has filed more than 7,000 such lawsuits against unidentified file-traders since December 2003, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the subpoena process used by the RIAA to obtain ISP subscriber names.

The RIAA has filed lawsuits only against unnamed defendants, called John Doe defendants, since the District of Columbia court ruling, said RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy. The defendants are then identified in the course of the lawsuit.

"There is no practical effect of this decision," Lamy said of Tuesday's ruling. "We've been filing John Doe lawsuits."

The RIAA sought the names under a provision in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allows copyright holders to issue subpoenas to ISPs for the names of alleged infringers before filing a lawsuit. The DMCA subpoenas do not need the approval of a judge; instead, the law directs court clerks to issue the subpoenas.

ISPs including Verizon Internet Services Inc. and Pacific Bell Internet have fought the subpoenas, saying they are too easy to obtain and could destroy Internet privacy. Verizon, which fought RIAA subpoenas in the District of Columbia court, argued that anyone claiming to be a copyright holder, including stalkers and rapists, could file subpoenas to find out the identity and home address of any Internet user.

In December 2003, the District of Columbia court rejected the RIAA argument that the DMCA subpoenas apply to material transmitted by ISP subscribers as well as content stored by an ISP. The Eighth Circuit court used similar arguments in rejecting the RIAA tactic with Charter Communications, which turned over subscriber names after a district court rejected its efforts to kill the subpoenas in November 2003.

Eighth Circuit Judge Kermit Bye wrote that subpoenas only apply to material stored on ISP servers, according to language in the DMCA. "As a court we are bound to interpret the terms of the statute and not to contort the statute so as to cover the situation presented by this case," he wrote.

The Eighth Circuit ordered the RIAA to return any information it obtained from Charter Communications using the subpoenas and to destroy any records of the information.

Charter Communications, based in St. Louis, applauded the new ruling. "Charter takes its responsibility to protect the private information of our customers very seriously," said David Andersen, Charter's senior vice president for communications. "Our customers place their trust in Charter, so we took all appropriate legal measures in this matter to fulfill this responsibility. This said, our actions in this case should assure them that this trust is justified."

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