The ruling throws out two lower-court decisions that gave the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) the right to subpoena the names of thousands of suspected users of file-sharing software programs without first filing lawsuits.
The association sued 382 people and warned 398 others in a widely publicized campaign to scare the estimated 60 million U.S. music swappers, and the parents of those who are teens, into giving up the practice and buying songs instead.
The association settled with 220 defendants — some for thousands of dollars — while 1,054 swappers signed “amnesty letters” vowing to erase their song files and promising never to steal music again.
Consumer advocates and Internet providers hailed yesterday’s ruling as an affirmation of privacy rights for Internet users in the face of a mass attack by a single industry.
The recording association said it would not be deterred from protecting the business of its members and promised additional lawsuits, saying it would seek the names in a more time-consuming way.
The RIAA contended that it was entitled to expedited subpoenas issued by court clerks, rather than judges, under a 1998 law designed to protect copyrighted works in the digital age. Although industry sleuths could track down the numerical Internet address of someone using file-sharing software, they could not take legal action without getting names and physical addresses of the swappers from their Internet access providers.
The music industry has suffered at the hands of services such as Kazaa, Morpheus, Grokster and LimeWire, which by some estimates have cost it more than $5 billion a year worldwide.
Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA and a former Verizon lawyer, said his organization has not decided if it will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask Congress to change the DMCA. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a musician, said he would push Congress to streamline the subpoena process.
Sherman said his group would file a first wave of “John Doe” lawsuits in January. Such suits are filed when the identity of the defendant is unknown. If a judge deems the suits valid, subpoenas to get the names and addresses of those using file-sharing software would be issued to Internet service providers, which have vowed to honor them.