Music industry sues again to halt downloads

Lawsuits against 532 seek to meet court objections

Web ID numbers are obtained

But courts are to be used to subpoena real names

January 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The music industry returned to the courthouse yesterday to sue 532 people it accuses of large-scale copyright infringement.

"Our campaign against illegal file sharers is not missing a beat," said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. "The message to illegal file sharers should be as clear as ever."

Although the accusations are made against hundreds of defendants, who might live anywhere in the United States, the industry actually filed only four lawsuits yesterday, three in New York courts and one in Washington, because courts there are close to major Internet service providers.

The lawsuits, involving the largest group of defendants to date, represent the third round against suspected file sharers since the industry began its litigation campaign last summer.

But these are the first lawsuits after a federal appeals court ruled illegal the industry's use of special copyright subpoenas to force Internet service providers to disclose the names of music traders.

The new lawsuits are classed as "John Doe" lawsuits, which have become more common in the Internet era because they allow plaintiffs to sue people whose identities are not known. These lawsuits identify the suspected file traders only by a numerical tag, known as an Internet protocol number, assigned to them by their Internet service provider. According to the industry, the people sued had, on average, posted about 800 music files for sharing.

In the previous round of lawsuits, the industry used a streamlined process under federal copyright law to demand the names of copyright violators from Internet companies by filling out a simple form with a court clerk. Under normal court procedure, the names would have been obtained by traditional subpoenas that must be authorized by a judge.

But in December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared that the expedited process did not apply to the file-sharing networks used by music traders.

Music industry officials said then that they would change their tactics to conform to the ruling, but that they would not change their overall strategy of suing music sharers to enforce copyrights.

Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said the new round of lawsuits shows "the record industry making good on its promise not to let up."

The industry will now ask the courts to issue subpoenas to the Internet access companies to reveal their subscribers' names based on the Internet protocol numbers. Once a subscriber's name is known, the original complaint will be amended to include the subscriber's name, or in some circumstances the cases will be re-filed or moved to other courts.

Industry lawyers said that they would offer defendants the chance to settle cases before amending the lawsuit under the defendant's name.

Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel for Verizon Communications, said that her company would comply with any subpoena issued by a court. Verizon filed a lawsuit last year against the recording industry association to protect the identities of its Internet customers. It argued at the time that the music industry should file John Doe lawsuits instead of using the copyright subpoena shortcut.

But the new wave of lawsuits, Deutsch said, might raise other issues. "Although in theory the John Doe lawsuit is more protective of consumers' interests, in this case a lot depends on whether the RIAA will push the envelope of what's permitted," she said. "If that doesn't seem kosher to a judge, they may well have a problem."

Consolidating hundreds of subpoena requests into a handful of lawsuits has caused some legal experts to wonder if the courts are ready to deal with the challenge.

"The court system will have to decide how big an administrative burden it is willing to suffer to allow the industry to get these names and go after people," Zittrain said.

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