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Digital Media Battles Continue in a Post-Verizon World

15 May, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

Two recent court decisions have opened the floodgates for both file-sharing and copyright enforcement.

Just days after U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates ordered Internet service provider Verizon to give the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) the name of a Verizon Internet subscriber suspected of trading in pirated music, the trade group sent out 200,000 instant messages to users of Grokster and KaZaA, two of the file-trading software providers. The messages warned that providing copyrighted product online is a crime.

A day later, StreamCast Networks, which distributes the Morpheus file-trading software, released an upgrade and announced the rehiring of its former CEO, video industry veteran Michael Weiss. “I intend for Morpheus to regain its No. 1 position,” Weiss said. “We were No. 1 because we cared about our users, we listened to our users and we provided our users with a superior experience. My message for everyone who has ever used Morpheus in the past is ‘we're back,' and it starts tomorrow with the release of Morpheus 3.0.”

The release of Morpheus 3.0 came on the heels of District Court Judge Stephen Wilson's ruling that companies that provide peer-to-peer software cannot be held liable for the way their products are used. That means even though their software is often used to trade music and movie files, they can't be forced to pay damages to copyright owners simply because they created file-sharing software and made it available.

Because the software providers can't be held liable for the material users trade, music companies and studios must pursue those who make unauthorized copies of their products available and those who download them.

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) president Jack Valenti said that the decision was misguided and that his organization will appeal.

“We strongly believe those who encourage, facilitate and profit from piracy are breaking the law and should be held accountable,” he said. “The court noted that a significant proportion of these defendants' advertising revenue depends upon infringement. Moreover, the court made it clear that the activity of users of file-copying networks to distribute copyrighted music, motion pictures and television programs is illegal -- it's not ‘sharing,' it's stealing.”

The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) hopped in line behind the MPAA, albeit three weeks after the court's decision.

“The illegal copying and transmission of movies over the Internet poses a grave threat to video retailers as well as to the studios, distributors and all others involved with the home video industry,” said an unattributed position statement. “The court's opinion invited Congress to step in and craft a legislative remedy to online piracy. VSDA believes it is important for all segments of the industry to be involved in developing effective legislation so we can be united in communicating to Congress our support for a legislative remedy.”

With the Electronic Frontier Foundation walking point, a coalition of 28 privacy rights groups is opposing a Bates decision that Verizon must turn over the names of users subpoenaed under powers of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Still, the ruling puts Internet users on notice that Big Brother could be watching at any time.

“In the end, Verizon's customers should have little expectation of privacy (or anonymity) in infringing copyrights. Subscribers to Verizon's Internet services are put on clear notice that they cannot use Verizon's service or network to infringe on copyrights,” Bates wrote. “If an individual subscriber opens his computer to permit others, through peer-to-peer file sharing, to download materials from that computer, it is hard to understand just what privacy expectation he or she has after essentially opening the computer to the world.”

The flurry of letters the RIAA dispatched after the Verizon ruling went a little too far: The music industry trade group apologized last week for sending dozens of cease-and- desist letters to non-infringers.

Meanwhile, in an effort to make it easier for consumers to pay for music online, Apple announced May 14 that its iTunes music download service had sold 2 million licensed downloads at 99 cents each.

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