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Supremes Quietly Change Piracy Debate

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; 9:43 AM

The Supreme Court handed Internet services providers and privacy advocates a crucial victory yesterday when it decided to pass on an important Internet piracy case.

The morning papers, however, missed the boat on reporting the significance of the case, with most newspapers skipping the development all together or running wire copy on their sites.

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In refusing to hear the case, the justices rebuffed an effort by the recording industry to establish once and for all that Internet service providers should have to hand over the identities of suspected file-swappers who subscribe to their networks. They also tacitly rejected the notion that the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a legitimate tool for tracking down Internet pirates.

It's one of the biggest setbacks yet to the entertainment industry's legal maneuverings (replete with lawsuits, subpoenas and courtroom drama) to fight digital piracy, but to get a clear picture of what the court did, readers had to turn to the trade publications and wire service reports.

"The recording industry may not agree, but the U.S. Supreme Court thinks personal privacy is far more important that music piracy," Red Herring reported. "On Tuesday, the high court refused to entertain an appeal of a unanimous 2003 decision by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that held that copyright holders cannot force Internet providers to identify file sharers using a mere subpoena. Industry watchers see this as yet another blow that the recording industry has taken in its fight against online file sharing -- a fight it is slowly losing. The lawsuits in question were between New York's Verizon Internet Services and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), headquartered in Washington, D.C."

Bloomberg noted that the Supreme Court "refused to make it easier for the recording industry to force Verizon Communications Inc. and other Internet service providers to identify subscribers who share copyrighted songs online." Wired News said the court's action is "effectively stopping one of the legal tactics of the music business as it tries to stamp out piracy."

The Associated Press, however, reported that yesterday's decision does not signal the end of the road for the Verizon-RIAA case. "The Supreme Court on Tuesday sidestepped a dispute over whether Internet providers can be forced to identify subscribers illegally swapping music and movies online. The subject, however, may be back at the court soon. The Bush administration agrees with recording and movie companies which want to use a 1998 law to get information about Internet users, but the administration also had encouraged the Supreme Court to wait to settle the issue. The recording industry 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 AP said.
Red Herring: Subpoenas Snubbed In File-Sharing Fight
The Associated Press via The Washington Post: Supreme Court Refuses To Hear Internet Piracy Case (Registration required)
Bloomberg via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Verizon Wins Court Appeal
Wired News: Music Industry Spurned By Court

Verizon, in a statement lauding yesterday's action -- or inaction -- by the Supreme Court, called it "an important victory for the personal privacy, free expression rights and safety of the more than 100 million Internet users in the U.S." The company reminded people that "the Court of Appeals decision, written by Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and handed down on Dec. 19, 2003, held that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) did not authorize copyright holders and their agents to obtain a subpoena requiring the release of the name, address and telephone number of any Internet user based upon the filing of a one-page form with the clerk of the district court."

InternetNews.com quoted Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate counsel for Verizon, who said, "The Supreme Court's action is a victory for consumers, for the Internet and its continued growth, and it marks the end of a dangerous and illegal subpoena campaign that threatened the constitutional rights of all Americans."

Reuters said the development yesterday is not likely to seriously affect the recording industry's legal campaign, as RIAA investigators have sued roughly 5,000 individuals using the John Doe process." The John Doe process is required by the lower court's ruling, which requires a lawsuit to be filed to reveal the identity of suspected file-swappers, Reuters explained. "Today's decision will not deter our anti-piracy efforts. The 'John Doe' litigation process we have successfully utilized this year continues to be an effective legal tool," said Stanley Pierre-Louis, RIAA's senior vice president for legal affairs, as quoted by Reuters.
InternetNews.com: High Court Bounces Latest RIAA Effort
Reuters: Supreme Court Won't Weigh Net Music Tactics

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