Now They’re After You: Music Cops Target Users

From the April 2003 issue of PC World magazine

Millions of people download copyrighted 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 but also individuals who download copyrighted 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 served Verizon 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.

“Most consumers are getting what they want on the Internet, and it’s really hurting this industry,” says Brian Dunn, senior VP of corporate development for Macrovision, a provider of copyright-protection technologies. Dunn predicts that cash-strapped music labels could start paring promotion budgets for new artists in the coming year, while moving to include copy protection on all of their CDs. (So far, only a handful of major-label releases in the United States use copy protection.)

No New Laws?
Some major copyright holders appear to be satisfied with the powers they have under existing laws. Touting a “market-oriented” approach to copyright protection, the RIAA, along with the Business Software Alliance and the Computer Systems Policy Project, recently issued a statement agreeing to pursue such protection without government intervention.

But the movie industry, which is conspicuously absent from the group announcement, continues to support the notion of legal mandates. “We are not prepared to abandon the option of seeking technical protection measures via the Congress or an appropriate regulatory agency,” says Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.

There is one attempt in the works to mitigate the DMCA’s harsher aspects: the Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act, recently introduced by Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia). The act–supported by an array of technology and telecommunications companies, including Intel, Philips, and Verizon–would let users circumvent copyright protection for “fair use” purposes, such as making backup copies of CDs or opening e-books in more than one reader, an activity the DMCA now prohibits (see “Hollywood vs. Your PC“).

Whatever happens legislatively, the days when you could download all the songs or movies you wanted for free, without fear of prosecution, seem nearly at an end.

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Now They’re After You: Music Cops Target Users