WASHINGTON - The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) does not have the authority under U.S. law to subpoena the names of alleged peer-to-peer file traders from ISPs (Internet service providers), a federal appellate court ruled Friday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a lower court's decision allowing the RIAA to file subpoenas asking Verizon Internet Services Inc. to turn over the names of suspected copyright infringers without the RIAA having to file lawsuits against the alleged file traders. But the RIAA's argument that the subpoenas allowed in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) apply to material transmitted through an ISP as well as content stored by an ISP "borders upon the silly," the court wrote.
The RIAA, which has requested hundreds of subpoenas this year, has filed 382 civil lawsuits against people who have allegedly shared music files illegally through peer-to-peer (P-to-P) software. The RIAA will continue to pursue legal action against file traders, even without the benefit of the DMCA subpoenas, the association said in a statement.
"This decision is inconsistent with both the views of Congress and the findings of the district court," said Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA in a written statement. "It unfortunately means we can no longer notify illegal file sharers before we file lawsuits against them to offer the opportunity to settle outside of litigation. Verizon is solely responsible for a legal process that will now be less sensitive to the interests of its subscribers who engage in illegal activity."
A Verizon lawyer disputed the RIAA's argument that Verizon will be responsible for file traders not being notified of legal actions against them. Verizon has been notifying targets of RIAA lawsuits after subpoenas have been filed, and the RIAA has argued before courts that ISP subscribers don't have due process rights to fight the subpoenas, said Sarah Deutsch, Verizon Communications vice president and associate general counsel.
"That is a completely disingenuous argument," Deutsch said of the RIAA position. "We have been the ones who've been providing notice (of the subpoenas) to subscribers."
Deutsch cheered the appeals court decision. "We thought the ruling was right on the mark," she said. "It's a very important ruling for all Internet users and consumers."
Verizon has received more than 400 DMCA subpoenas from the RIAA this year, Deutsch said. Asked what effect Friday's court ruling has on existing RIAA lawsuits against ISP subscribers who had been identified through the subpoenas, Deutsch said she wasn't sure.
A lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called Friday's court ruling a victory for Internet users. "Internet users are the winners in the Verizon case," EFF staff attorney Wendy Seltzer said in an e-mail. "The effect of the appeals court decision is that we do not lose our privacy simply by connecting to the Internet. The ruling stops the record labels from taking our free speech rights as collateral damage in the campaign against the American music fan."