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Consumer Fights Subpoena Seeking File Sharers' Names

August 14, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

After serving Internet providers with more than 1,000 subpoenas demanding the names and addresses of people who share copyrighted music online, the Recording Industry Assn. of America has run into someone who wants to fight for her anonymity.

The woman is a Verizon Internet Services customer accused of offering copyrighted songs on a file-sharing network for others to download free. The woman, who has hired a lawyer to contest a subpoena, apparently is the first to try to prevent her identity from being disclosed to the record companies' trade association.

People identified through the subpoenas are likely to be targets for the copyright-infringement lawsuits the RIAA plans to file in its campaign against music piracy.

The trade group's subpoenas have been resisted by some Internet providers but not, until now, by the customers whose anonymity the RIAA wants to penetrate. Because Internet providers aren't required to notify people about subpoenas, many might not be aware they're targeted.

Sarah Deutsch, associate general counsel for Verizon Communications Inc., said the company -- which unsuccessfully challenged two early RIAA subpoenas -- has notified all customers whose names have been sought by the RIAA. One retained an attorney, Daniel Ballard of McDonough Holland & Allen in Sacramento, who asked Verizon not to comply with the subpoena because he planned to contest it.

Verizon didn't reveal the woman's name, Deutsch said, and the RIAA last week asked a federal judge in Washington to compel Verizon to identify her.

Ballard said he planned to respond by challenging the constitutionality of the RIAA subpoena process on grounds that it has violated people's rights to privacy and due process.

Verizon made the same case when it tried to block RIAA subpoenas this year, and a federal judge rejected the argument.

The RIAA motion to force Verizon to honor the subpoena demanding the woman's name raises new questions about whether individuals have the right to intervene to protect privacy and how they might justify quashing a subpoena.

"This type of issue will go beyond pure copyright law to important questions of due process and consumer rights," Deutsch said.

Matthew Oppenheim, the RIAA's senior vice president of business and legal affairs, defended the group's strategy.

"From our perspective, we are on target, and if people think that suits aren't coming, they should wake up," he said.

At least five Internet providers -- SBC Communications Inc.'s Pacific Bell Internet Services, Columbia University, Boston University, Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- have fought the subpoenas by contending that they weren't properly served. Last week, a federal judge in Massachusetts agreed with Boston College and MIT, quashing four subpoenas.

The RIAA subpoenas were issued by a federal court clerk in Washington, and federal rules say subpoenas can't be issued more than 100 miles outside a court's territory, said Robert B. Smith, associate general counsel at Boston University.

"We're willing to give them the name, rank and serial number of anyone who's violating their copyrights," he said, "but they have to do it right."

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