DOJ drops charges against websites seized for 17 months

The judge ordered two sports-streaming websites to be returned to their owner

The U.S. Department of Justice has dropped its case against two Spanish websites that stream sports events nearly 17 months after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized the sites and shut them down for alleged copyright violations.

In a one-page brief to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the district said his office had dropped the case against Rojadirecta.com and Rojadirecta.org. ICE seized the two sites on Jan. 31, 2011, and the DOJ asked the court to order that Puerto 80 Projects, the owner of the sites, forfeit the sites to the U.S. government.

Judge Paul Crotty agreed on Wednesday to dismiss the case and return the websites to Puerto 80.

Bharara's office offered little explanation for the dismissal, although Puerto 80 had fought the forfeiture. "As a result of certain recent judicial authority involving issues germane to the [case], and in light of the particular circumstances of this litigation, the government now seeks to dismiss its amended forfeiture complaint," Bharara's office wrote in a letter to the judge. "The decision to seek dismissal of this case will best promote judicial economy and serve the interests of justice."

Earlier this month, Puerto 80 filed a court brief pointing to an Aug. 2 ruling by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which said linking to streaming videos hosted elsewhere on the Internet did not encourage or assist copyright infringement.

Puerto 80 had also argued that a Spanish court had found the websites to be legal. A lawyer for the company wasn't immediately available for comment, nor was a representative of ICE.

The Rojadirecta seizures, along with the yearlong seizure of music site Dajaz1.com, show the problems with ICE's copyright seizure methods, said Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs for digital rights group Public Knowledge.

"It is far too easy for the government to seize domain names and hold them for an extended period even when it is unable to make a sustainable case of infringement," Siy said in an email. "These sorts of abuses are likely to continue until there are adequate safeguards to assure accountability."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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