Requests by the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) for Internet service providers to give up hundreds of names of customers allegedly downloading music files has run into backlash, with a U.S. senator questioning the practice and a second major ISP filing a lawsuit.
Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, spoke out last week with concerns about the RIAA's "shotgun" approach to filing administrative subpoenas authorized by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). A day earlier, Pacific Bell Internet Services, a subsidiary of SBC Communications Inc., filed a lawsuit against the RIAA and two other organizations after Pacific Bell received more than 200 subpoenas asking for the identities of its customers.
The RIAA responded by statement to both actions, saying it would comply with Coleman's request for information on the subpoenas. The information will confirm that the RIAA's actions are consistent with U.S. law, the RIAA said.
"(The information) will demonstrate that our enforcement program, one part of a multi-pronged strategy, is an appropriate and measured response to the very serious problem of blatant copyright infringement confronting the entire music community," the RIAA statement said.
The DMCA allows copyright holders to subpoena ISPs for the names of people they believe are using their copyrighted material without permission. These subpoenas are issued by a court clerk without a judge's action, but Pacific Bell and other critics have suggested the subpoenas could be abused by anyone, including stalkers and rapists, who claimed to be copyright holders.
"We really believe that anyone who can take the time to fill out a form letter can get it stamped by the court clerk and get the name of an Internet user," said Larry Meyer, a spokesman for SBC. "The potential for abuse is very great."
For the past year, Verizon Internet Services Inc. has been fighting two subpoenas from the RIAA and has lost in court twice. Verizon turned over the names of the alleged downloaders in early June but promised to keep fighting the DMCA subpoenas.
The Pacific Bell lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, asks that the subpoenas be declared invalid, Meyer said. The company filed the lawsuit last week because several of the RIAA subpoenas had last week as their deadlines, he said.
Pacific Bell is also fighting demands from copyright infringement tracker MediaForce that it cancel the subscriptions of "thousands" of its customers and a subpoena from adult-themed entertainment company Titan Media, which demanded the names of 50 Pacific Bell customers. The MediaForce demands suggest the ISP should cancel customer accounts on "their word alone," Meyer said.
"This lawsuit is about protecting the privacy rights of our customers," he added.
The RIAA called Pacific Bell's arguments against the subpoenas "old news," with the company "recycling many of the same arguments" already rejected in the Verizon case.
"It's unfortunate that they have chosen to litigate this, unlike every other ISP which has complied with their obligations under the law," an RIAA statement said. "We had previously reached out to SBC to discuss this matter, but had been rebuked. This procedural gambit will not ultimately change the underlying fact that when individuals engage in copyright infringement on the Internet, they are
not anonymous and service providers must reveal who they are."
Meanwhile, Coleman, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, wrote a letter to the RIAA asking it for a copy of all the DMCA subpoenas it has requested, a description of the methodology the RIAA is using to find evidence of illegal file sharing, and other information.
Coleman said in a statement he does not support illegal file trading, but there may be a "more circumspect and narrowly tailored method" for the RIAA to go after file downloaders.
"The industry seems to have adopted a shotgun approach that could potentially cause injury and harm to innocent people who may have simply been victims of circumstance, or possessing a lack of knowledge of the rules related to digital sharing of files," Coleman said in a statement. "The RIAA subpoenas have snared unsuspecting grandparents whose grandchildren have used their personal computers, individuals whose roommates have shared their computers, as well as colleges and universities across the United States," the statement said.