U.S. Justices Reject Appeal Over ISP Disclosure

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON — In a resounding win for electronic freedom advocates, U.S. Justices on Tuesday rejected an appeal to force Internet service providers to turn over the names of possible copyright violators.

The court, without comment, turned its back on arguments from the Recording Industry Association of America and let stand a lower court ruling that rejected a streamlined subpoena process the industry was using to try and access customer information at ISPs.

At issue in this case is whether a subpoena attached to no other legal proceedings can be used to hunt down information about suspected copyright violators.

The RIAA had sought court intervention now, arguing that more than 2.6 billion music files are illegally downloaded each month and that the law is needed to identify culprits.

The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act gave copyright holders new tools to try and stop technologically advanced pirating of copyrighted material.

But the law was written before peer-to-peer file-swapping was common, and an appeals court said it could not be used to get information about people who share copyrighted files.

The recording industry has filed more than 3,000 legal actions in the last 10 months against suspected P2P violators, including another appeal to the Supreme Court on actions against file-sharing services Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc. from a case that was last heard at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tuesday’s denial at the high court level, however, focused on provisions of subpoenas

Verizon Internet Services has fought the industry's efforts to gain access to customer data without first filing a legal claim.

"At bottom, RIAA is asking this court to alter the words of the subpoena provision," Verizon said in its argument. "Copyright holders repeatedly have sought to have the federal courts 'adapt' existing law to cover new technologies that they perceive as a threat."

But the RIAA said the subpoena provision was an important legal tool that warranted high court action.

"Immediate review is needed,” the RIAA said in a brief, “because the decision below is thwarting legitimate efforts across the nation to combat ongoing piracy that is causing irreparable harm to copyright owners.”

The RIAA won the first round when a trial judge said the subpoenas were allowed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

But later, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, overruled that judge by deciding subpoenas couldn't be issued against an ISP that doesn't store the copyrighted material on its computer servers.

Among other things, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act compels ISPs to terminate the account of a copyright offender and remove illegal website material being hosted on a service provider's computer system.

The cases are Verizon Internet Services vs. Recording Industry Association of America, No. 03-1722, and Recording Industry Association of America vs. Verizon Internet Services, No. 03-1579.