Copyright vs. Privacy


The folks at the Center for Democracy and Technology favor changing the Digital Milennium Copyright Act so that big content providers (i.e., the entertainment industry) won't have the right to subpoena Internet Service Providers for the names of users suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted materials. As it stands now, media companies don't have to file a lawsuit to make the request.

Regardless of one's position on downloading, this case highlights the tensions between privacy and copyright–tensions that are growing as content providers become more active in going after alleged infringers. (Yes, a Reason feature story on this very topic is in the works.)

From a Cox News Service report published in the Grand Junction Sentinel:

Seven and a half billion music files on American computers are from peer networks, and 64 percent of households with Web access have at least one digital music file on their computers, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.

Most of the providers subpoenaed in July, including Atlanta-based BellSouth and Earthlink and New York-based Time Warner, have handed over more than a 1,000 customer names to the recording industry association. San Antonio- based SBC Communications, however, refused to hand over the information, saying the subpoenas violate its customers' privacy because the association only needs to allege wrongdoing to file a request.

"Once [the association] makes its filing and pays $25, due process and privacy are out the window," James Ellis, general counsel of SBC, told the panel. "It will be inevitable that the Internet stalker or child molester will use this approach to find victims."

William Barr, general counsel of Verizon, cited Titan Media as an example of a group exploiting the 1998 act. The group, a file sharing network for gay pornography, asked an ISP to hand over the identities of 59 users it suspected of illegally using its network. Titan withdrew the subpoena, but now requires Internet users to buy its material, threatening to use the subpoena process to disclose their identity, he said.

Brownback's legislation would require the copyright holder to file a lawsuit to obtain a customer's identity, not just hand over a document to a clerk.

Music industry leaders said that the Millennium copyright act allows them to enforce valuable copyrights, but does not give them far reaching powers. John Rose, executive vice president of recording company EMI, said it had cut its artist roster by a quarter last year, and laid off 20 percent of its workforce because of digital piracy.

"We are entitled only to name, address, phone number and e-mail," said Cary Sherman, president of the recording association. "That's the same information SBC and Yahoo routinely give out to marketing partners." Alternative proposals by SBC and Verizon would allow Titan to acquire the same information, he said.