Music cops target users

Millions of people download copyright songs and even movies from the Internet with little fear of being caught. That’s about to change.

“(The music industry is) starting to move down the food chain,” says Lawrence Hertz, a partner at New York law firm Hall Dickler Kent Goldstein and Wood, and a specialist in online law.

He predicts that music publishers and other content owners will soon use 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act much more aggressively – prosecuting not only companies like Napster Inc. but also individuals who download copyright content – and that they will start with the biggest users of peer-to-peer networks.

The new strategy became evident last year when the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. served Verizon Communications Inc. with a subpoena demanding that the service provider disclose the identity of a user who uploaded more than 600 songs while connected to the company’s Internet service.

Verizon protested, but recently a U.S. district court judge ruled in favor of the RIAA and ordered Verizon to reveal the user’s identity.

Verizon asked for a stay of the judge’s order; at press time this was still pending, but approval seemed unlikely.

“If this ruling stands, consumers will be caught in a digital dragnet,” says John Thorne, Verizon senior vice president and deputy general counsel. If the stay is denied, Verizon says it will seek a stay at the appeals court level.

“It’s going to have quite a huge impact on privacy,” says Gwen Hinze, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF argues that the ruling lets copyright holders get users’ identities merely by alleging copyright infringement (a fairly easy standard to meet) – without review by a judge and without giving users any chance to protect themselves or their identities.

The music industry says that it’s just defending itself from digital piracy, which has contributed to two successive years of declining CD sales.