Music industry slams ISPs with subpoenas

The Recording Industry Association of America is seeking subpoenas, at a rate of 75 a day, to force Internet providers to release the names of customers suspected of downloading bootlegged songs online.

It’s the music industry’s first step toward curbing online piracy at the source — individual computer users. When it gets the names from Internet companies, the industry plans to file civil lawsuits to stop the practice — and deter others with the threat of penalties of $150,000 per stolen song.

Internet service providers call the torrent of subpoenas an unprecedented action.

The RIAA announced a shift in legal strategy last month, after a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that popular file-swapping services like Morpheus and Grokster could not be held liable for alleged copyright abuses by their millions of users.

Within a day of announcing plans to sue hundreds — and possibly thousands — of computer users who trade in bootlegged songs online, attorneys for the RIAA began seeking subpoenas to obtain the names of suspected infringers, known only by online aliases such as “Clover77” and “Jeff.”

The actual identities of those subpoenaed, as well as where they live and work, are not yet known.

“This should not surprise anyone,” said Amy Weiss, the RIAA’s senior vice president of communications, in an e-mail. “Filing information subpoenas is part of the evidence-gathering process that we announced a few weeks ago, in anticipation of the lawsuits that we will be filing against people who illegally make copyrighted music available on peer-to-peer networks. We’re doing exactly what we said we’d do.”

The RIAA has subpoenaed virtually every major Internet provider, including EarthLink, Pacific Bell Internet in San Francisco, Comcast and Charter Communications, according to an examination of court documents.

Stewart Baker, general counsel for the Internet industry’s leading trade group — the United States Internet Service Providers Association — said the subpoenas pose a significant burden. He said it’s both expensive and logistically challenging to track down individual subscribers from the sketchiest of information — often, a user name and a randomly assigned Internet address.

“In many cases, especially for people who have dynamic IP addresses, you’ve got to go back through the rolls, because many people have used the same IP address over the last two weeks,” said Baker.

Verizon Internet Services predicted that this day would come, as it fought the RIAA’s efforts to learn the identity of a single subscriber accused of downloading more than 600 copyrighted songs on Kazaa. Verizon was ordered to turn over the name in June, and has since received a reported 150 additional subpoenas from the RIAA.

“We argued to the judge that this kind of huge automated process would result in some abuses in the future. We also argued that it was a waste of judicial resources to turn the clerks’ office into a full-time subpoena mill for a private party,” said Sarah Deutsch, Verizon vice president and associate general counsel.

The recording industry has maintained that it has little choice other than to pursue individuals who use file-swapping services to steal music. It blames the wild popularity of file-swapping pioneer Napster, and its subsequent imitators that arose after its demise in 2001, for a 26 percent drop in music shipments since 1999.

And, as evidence of the corrosive effects of downloading, it pointed to a recent Edison Media Research study, which found that 48 percent of heavy music downloaders no longer purchase CDs because they get music for free online.

“We all would much rather spend our time making music than dealing with legal issues in courtrooms,” said RIAA President Cary Sherman last month, in defending the new, unpopular legal initiative. “But we can no longer accept the work of our artists, songwriters, and entire music industry being stolen. So we’re going to start doing something more about it.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, meanwhile, will launch a massive advertising campaign seeking to defend the rights of an estimated 57 million file-swappers and legitimize services like Kazaa. The ad, appearing in popular music magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe, shows several music fans in a police-style lineup. The ad copy reads, “Tired of being treated like a criminal for sharing music online?” and “File-Sharing: It’s Music to Our Ears.”

“We think that it’s gotten crazy enough now and it’s time to say stop,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the San Francisco-based Internet rights organization. “That this ever-increasing demonization of file-sharing and file-sharers is counterproductive. It doesn’t get artists paid. And it doesn’t respond to what consumers want.”

Source: San Jose Mercury News

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