A federal judge's ruling yesterday that Verizon Online should disclose the name of an Internet subscriber downloading unauthorized copies of songs may be a boost for the music industry, but it could limit Internet growth, according to Verizon.
“The court's decision has troubling ramifications for consumers, service providers and the growth of the Internet,” Sarah B. Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel at Verizon, said in a prepared statement. “This case will have a chilling effect on private communications, such as e-mail, surfing the Internet or the sending of files between private parties.”
The ruling comes six months after Verizon declined to comply with a subpoena to identify the customer who was alleged by the Recording Industry Association of America to be infringing on the copyrights of its recording artists by making available 600 music files over the Internet.
Verizon argued that the subpoena did not respect the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which states that the infringing material must reside on the Internet service provider's system or network. Verizon said the alleged material in this case would be found only on the user's computer hard drive.
The RIAA then sued Verizon to enforce the subpoena. U.S. District Court judge John Bates in Washington ruled in favor of the RIAA, saying Verizon's stance “would create a huge loophole in Congress' efforts to prevent copyright infringement on the Internet.”
The ruling lets the RIAA use a legal shortcut forcing ISPs like Verizon to furnish subscriber data without requiring a copyright holder to actually file a suit. Verizon argued that the shortcut was applicable to a special set of circumstances.
“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 offered by the courts,” Deutsch said.
The ruling in essence lets RIAA investigators simultaneously identify thousands of song swappers without first going to court.
It also comes as sales of CDs have plunged in the past few years due to the steady proliferation of music-download sites like the now-defunct Napster, KaZaA, Morpheus and Grokster. An estimated 2.6 billion files of music are illegally downloaded monthly by users of file-trading programs like KaZaA, according to the RIAA.
File-trading programs let online users place music or video files in a shared folder. That content can be made available to searchers online by running the file-trading program. The programs are designed to shield the users of this software.
Until the RIAA filed its lawsuit, the fast-track subpoena was used to garner information on users who post copyrighted content on individual Web sites that reside on computers owned by an ISP. In this case, the RIAA asked to identify the alleged pirate for distributing content from a personal computer using file-trading programs that offer sufficient anonymity.
The RIAA suit against Verizon is one in a litigious line by the music industry. In the Napster suit, A&M Records Inc. used SoundScan research to confirm that online file sharing resulted in a loss of album sales within college markets. Record companies are now exploring ways to extract revenue from online music fans. Legal downloading, streaming, portability and burning are among the options being offered in slow-but-steady doses.
Record labels are making available hundreds of thousands of tracks through online services like Emusic, Full Audio, MusicNet, Listen.com's Rhapsody and Pressplay. Likewise, music aficionados can buy digital tracks from the catalogs of major and independent record labels through online retailers and music sites like Liquid Audio and RioPort. Streamed content is also available on subscription services like streamwaves.com.