Court: ISPs Not Required to Comply With RIAA

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down a lower court's ruling requiring Internet providers to comply with copyright subpoenas served on behalf of the recording industry.

As a result, the Recording Industry Association of America's anti-piracy campaign waged against individuals downloading music now faces a major setback. Privacy advocates hail the decision as a blow against the RIAA's controversial solution to stem piracy.

Although the court's decision does not legalize the downloading of copyrighted music, it is now much more difficult and expensive for industry sleuths to track down "egregious" file-swappers, which the RIAA subsequently targets with lawsuits.

The heart of the matter is a 1998 law passed well before the explosive growth of peer to peer networks. According to the justices, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) cannot directly police the activities of such networks.

In its ruling, the court wrote that the DCMA, "betrays no awareness whatsoever that Internet users might be able directly to exchange files containing copyrighted works."

The RIAA made headlines this past autumn, filing lawsuits against 261 individuals for copyright infringement, including a 12-year-old girl from New York. The association has threatened thousands more with possible legal action.

In response to widespread criticism over its tactics, the RIAA instituted a "clean state" program intended to offer amnesty to file-sharers who come clean and sign a declaration saying that they will never do it again.

The idea of softening its behavior by establishing an amnesty initiative has not silenced the RIAA's ideological adversaries.

Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told BetaNews that the Appeals Court ruling, "stops the most abusive tactic, blanketing ISPs with subpoenas demanding "expeditious" disclosure of user identities. It does not prevent copyright holders from enforcing their rights through John Doe lawsuits."

A John Doe lawsuit requires judicial oversight prior to obtaining a defendant's identity. The EFF compares the power of the RIAA to subpoena users prior to this ruling as tantamount to the Patriot Act's stringent measures to combat terrorists.

EFF's Seltzer explained the ruling means, "that connecting to the Internet doesn't require giving up your expectations of privacy."

Despite facing declining retail sales, records labels are seeing a resurgence of music buying online. Apple's iTunes Music Store recently surpassed 25 million downloads, while Dell, Microsoft, and even former industry bad-boy Napster are vying for a space in the market for legal music downloads.

Earlier this week, America Online threw the switch on a one-click shortcut to iTunes music purchases throughout its music properties, offering up legal downloading to its 25 million subscribers. Apple also modified iTunes to better accommodate AOL users.

When asked if RIAA would be better off advocating legal alternatives such as iTunes rather than aggressively pursuing litigation, Seltzer told BetaNews, "iTunes is one option, and surely a better one than litigation. Even better than offering iTunes as THE solution, however, would be a future in which the artists and music companies were willing to discuss licensing of peer-to-peer distribution, alongside options such as iTunes."

The EFF recommends a voluntary collective license system that would simultaneously blanket music fans from lawsuits while also fairly compensating artists.

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