Ruling that there is no right to anonymity when sharing music online, a federal judge Tuesday ordered the Internet unit of Verizon Communications Inc. to reveal the name of a customer accused of piracy by the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
The decision, which Verizon plans to appeal, is a boon not only to major record labels but also to Hollywood studios, book publishers, video game developers and other copyright holders whose works are copied freely online.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates in Washington ruled that a copyright holder can force an Internet service provider to disclose the names of customers accused of piracy without having to file individual lawsuits against alleged violators.
If upheld, Bates' ruling would make it easier for the RIAA to take its fight against piracy directly to the heaviest users of online file-sharing networks, such as Kazaa and Morpheus.
But critics of the decision said it gives people accused of copyright infringement less legal protection than those accused of other crimes.
"Anyone can claim to be a copyright holder, and anyone can use this process to obtain your identity, whether you've infringed a copyright or not," said Sarah B. Deutsch, Verizon's associate general counsel. "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."
RIAA President Cary Sherman acknowledged plans to pursue only the consumer involved in the case at hand.
"We look forward to contacting the account holder whose identity we were seeking so we can let them know that what they are doing is illegal," Sherman said.
The case comes at a crucial juncture for the music industry, which is changing its legal strategy to turn up the heat on consumers who copy music online.
The major labels and music publishers have won a series of key rulings against file-sharing services such as Napster Inc., which enable users to copy music, movies and other items from one another's computers. Yet those rulings haven't stopped file-sharing systems from proliferating -- or CD sales from plummeting.
To attack piracy at its roots, the labels want to send a clear, chilling message directly to consumers that unauthorized copying is illegal. In particular, they're focusing on the people who make large amounts of music available for others to copy through an online network.
The goal is to shatter users' sense of anonymity and immunity, weakening the appeal of file-sharing services. After obtaining the identity of users through their Internet providers, RIAA could send them letters demanding that they stop infringing copyrights or risk large financial penalties and the loss of their Internet access.
Efforts began last summer, when an RIAA anti-piracy investigator found an unidentified Kazaa user offering more than 600 songs for copying. The investigator traced the user to a set of Internet addresses in the Pittsburgh area served by Verizon Internet Services Inc.
RIAA then used a controversial 1998 federal law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to obtain a subpoena from a court clerk in Washington. The subpoena, which was issued after the RIAA submitted a sworn statement identifying the allegedly infringing files, instructed Verizon to identify the person whose account was associated with the Internet addresses.
Verizon refused to comply, saying the allegedly pirated material was on the user's personal computer, not on Verizon's network. And the DMCA's subpoena power, Verizon argued, applies only to alleged infringers whose pirated booty is on the provider's network -- for example, when they're on a Web site operated by the provider on a customer's behalf.
Verizon's attorneys said the company would identify the user only if the music labels filed a "John Doe" lawsuit against the person before issuing a subpoena. Once a lawsuit is filed, the alleged infringer would receive notice and be able to challenge any attempt to disclose his or her identity.
In a 35-page opinion, Bates said Verizon's arguments run counter to the wording and intent of the law.
"The statute contemplates a rapid subpoena process designed quickly to identify apparent infringers and then curtail the infringement," Bates wrote, adding that Congress wanted the process to move quickly because of "the ease with which digital works can be copied and distributed worldwide virtually instantaneously."
The judge also noted that the DMCA struck a balance, giving Internet service providers immunity from copyright lawsuits in exchange for their help in "identifying and dealing with infringers who misuse the service providers' systems."
Bates also said the DMCA's safeguards give more protection against baseless subpoenas than a John Doe lawsuit would. Although he did not rule on the constitutionality of the subpoena provision, Bates said this was not "an instance where the anonymity of an Internet user merits free speech and privacy protections."
Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for online civil liberties, however, said that "before you violate a user's privacy and require an ISP to out them, you normally have to make a case in front of a judge."
"This ruling appears to say that that's true for everybody and every claim, whether it's defamation or trade secret or [securities] violations, except if you're Hollywood," Cohn said. "And Hollywood gets your name just on a say-so."
Stewart Baker, general counsel for the U.S. Internet Service Provider Assn., shared Cohn's concern about the potential for abusing the subpoena process.
"Everybody who can write is a copyright owner and can make a claim of infringement," Baker said. "If there are abuses, we'll do as ISPs what we can to prevent them, but this decision doesn't leave a lot of room for ISPs to contest these subpoenas."
Seeing the potential effect on the entire entertainment industry and Internet users at large, the Hollywood studios and music publishers intervened on the RIAA's behalf, while numerous Internet service providers, consumer advocates and civil liberties groups sided with Verizon.
A copy of the District Court order is available at www.latimes.com/business/la-furl_privacy.framedurl.