Ruling in Charter Case Smashes DMCA Subpoena Powers

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision today that will stop entertainment corporations from gaining access to the names of people using peer-to-peer (P2P) networks unless the companies file lawsuits against them and furnish actual evidence of copyright infringement.

The case was sparked by a series of subpoenas sent by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to Missouri-based Internet service provider (ISP) Charter Communications, Inc. The record companies claimed that these subpoenas, which demanded that Charter identify customers accused of offering infringing music on P2P networks, were authorized by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with 21 other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and the Computer &amp Communications Industry Association (CCIA), filed a "friend of the court" brief in the Charter case, urging the Eighth Circuit to determine that the same strong protections applied to anonymous speech in other contexts also apply when copyright infringement is claimed but has not yet been proven. In a victory for privacy and anonymity, the Eighth Circuit determined that DMCA subpoenas could not be used to get this information.

EFF Staff Attorney Wendy Seltzer noted that the RIAA has already changed its tactics for the better in current suits against filesharers. In these new cases, record companies generally file suit against "John Does." Said Seltzer, "In the 'Doe' lawsuits RIAA members are currently filing, a judge oversees the discovery process and can help protect ISP customers before their names are revealed." EFF has filed amicus briefs in several of the Doe cases, and some judges have limited the record labels' discovery of identities through mass lawsuits.

In December 2003, the DC Circuit ruled that the RIAA could not use the DMCA's non-judicial subpoenas to obtain subscriber identities from ISP Verizon Internet Services, Inc. "Charter should be congratulated for following in the footsteps of Verizon in standing up for the privacy of its users," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. The US Supreme Court rejected the RIAA's appeal of the Verizon case. Today's Eighth Circuit decision is an explicit endorsement of the DC Circuit's ruling.


Cindy Cohn
Legal Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Wendy Seltzer
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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