Internet, Music Firms in Court over Digital Music

By | September 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Former allies in the fight against music piracy, Internet access providers and the recording industry, are now headed to court in a dispute over how to target individuals who swap copyrighted material online.

The recording industry wants telecommunications giant Verizon Communications to reveal the name of a customer it believes is “a hub for significant music piracy” as it pursues the Internet song-swappers it blames for declining CD sales.

Verizon has refused, saying that such a move would violate customer privacy and force Internet providers to serve as the music industry’s online policeman.

At issue is a 1998 digital-copyright law that protects Internet providers from legal liability in piracy cases if they cooperate with the industry’s enforcement efforts.

The recording industry contends that the law requires Verizon to cooperate, while Verizon says the law only requires it to take down Web sites that host offending material, not monitor its customers’ Internet use.

“We viewed ourselves as a partner with the content community,” said Sarah Deutsch, Verizon’s general counsel. “There’s no other industry that has assisted them in this manner with their copyrights, but they’ve crossed the line here.”

Now headed to trial, the dispute looks to be the next big battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley as interest groups have picked sides.

The motion-picture industry filed a brief supporting the record labels last Friday, while a group of 300 other Internet providers backed Verizon last night. Online civil-liberties groups have told the court they support Verizon as well.


Verizon and other Internet providers maintain that they do not support copyright violations, and the two industries have worked closely over the past four years to locate and take down thousands of Web sites and other unauthorized hubs of copyrighted material.

But the advent of “peer to peer” services such as Napster and Kazaa complicated the arrangement, as users were able to search for digital music on each others’ hard drives rather than Web sites.

The recording industry was able to shut Napster down in July 2001, but has been unable so far to close the services that sprung up in its place.

Instead, the industry has begun to target individual users, hoping that lawsuits or sternly worded warnings will lead to a decline in use.

“We need to make it abundantly clear to people that they are engaging in illegal activity when they are offering their personal music collection, which they don’t own copyrights in, for others to take,” said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Copyright violators could face penalties of between $200 and $150,000 per count, Sherman said.

While the RIAA is able to determine the numerical Internet address of computers trading copyrighted songs, it cannot find the name of the user without the cooperation of Internet providers, Sherman said.

The association asked Verizon over the summer to match a numerical address with a customer name, but Verizon said it would not cooperate.

Instead, the RIAA should sue the user directly and compel Verizon to provide the customer’s name, Deutsch said.

“They can’t just launch a mass-scale war on consumers without following the right legal process,” she said.

Sherman said such an approach would be too burdensome as it would require the industry to file suit against music fans who might be persuaded to stop by a simple warning letter.

The RIAA’s approach has other flaws, other Internet providers say. Wireless networks, public terminals in libraries and coffeepots, and pre-paid Internet access cards mean that numerical Internet addresses often do not point to the copyright violator, said David McClure, president of the U.S. Internet Industry Association.

“Even in a person’s home, you don’t know if it’s that person, or someone related to that person, or one of Johnny’s friends who’s on the computer doing this,” McClure said.

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