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File-Sharing Suit May Be Moved

SBC's fight against subpoenas may go to a court that has sided with the record industry.

November 22, 2003|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge on Friday signaled her support for the record industry as it seeks to file more lawsuits against people who trade songs online, though a challenge from a North Carolina student added a new hurdle for the music companies.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America asked SBC Communications Inc.'s Internet access business this year to turn over the names of customers suspected of swapping pirated songs. SBC refused to honor the subpoenas, instead asking the court to invalidate the law under which they were issued on the grounds that it violates the due-process and privacy rights of consumers.

In a hearing in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said she was inclined to transfer the suit to Washington, D.C., where another federal court rejected a similar complaint by Internet service provider Verizon Communications Inc.

"My preliminary view is to grant the motion," Illston said. She spent much of the hourlong hearing asking an SBC attorney why she should not move the case to Washington. Illston did not say how or when she would rule, but attorneys working alongside San Antonio-based SBC said they were discouraged.

SBC argues that it is improper for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to force the release of customer information based on little more than a suspicion of wrongdoing and without a judge's review. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a brief in support of SBC.

New York-based Verizon raised similar issues in the case it lost before U.S. District Judge John Bates in Washington. That ruling eventually turned more on whether the DMCA entitled the record labels to information about Internet users even when the service provider is not storing the songs itself. Bates' decision is now on appeal.

This week in St. Louis, a federal judge upheld RIAA subpoenas issued to Charter Communications Inc. despite argu- ments from the cable Internet service provider that the subpoenas were improper.

But in a sign that the battle will continue, the ACLU on Friday launched a new constitutional challenge to the subpoenas in Greensboro, N.C., on behalf of an anonymous user of the University of North Carolina's computer system. The filing seeks to quash a subpoena issued to the university seeking the student's identity, on the grounds that it violates the student's due process rights.

"We think that this particular statute, as the RIAA is interpreting it, is unconstitutional," said ACLU Senior Staff Counsel Christopher Hansen.

An RIAA spokeswoman responded that the ACLU's arguments "are legally unfounded, and we are confident that the court will agree."

In another pending case, an alleged music pirate is fighting a subpoena in Washington.

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