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Verizon to hand names over to RIAA

The fight to protect the identities of four accused copyright infringers comes to an end after an appellate panel denies the company's request for a delay.

Verizon Communications said Wednesday that it will turn over to a recording industry trade group the names of four anonymous subscribers accused of illegal file swapping, after an appellate panel denied the company's request for a delay.

In a victory for copyright holders, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to intervene in the case and protect the subscribers' identities while the case moves forward. However, final victory for the recording industry is still a ways off, with a pending appeal scheduled for a hearing in September that could vindicate Verizon.

The case immediately exposes the four defendants to legal action. More broadly, it could pave the way for copyright holders to more easily identify people who trade pirated files on peer-to-peer networks. While file swappers may seek to conceal their identities online, they can usually be discovered by connecting online activity to records kept by Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Verizon.

At stake are subpoena powers granted under a controversial copyright law that aims to make it easier for content owners to combat Internet piracy. Unlike ordinary "John Doe" subpoenas, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) allows copyright holders to subpoena information without first seeking a judge's blessing, making it an easier and cheaper method for tracking down alleged copyright infringers.

Privacy experts have criticized such subpoenas, saying they violate consumers' privacy and give copyright holders too much power. Internet trade groups worry that it could shift the burden of copyright enforcement toward ISPs.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had sent two subpoenas to Verizon under fast-track provisions of the DMCA, seeking to unmask the identity of subscribers who traded music files via peer-to-peer networks including Kazaa.

Verizon refused to comply with the subpoenas, citing concerns about customer privacy and legal liability. In both cases, the RIAA asked a U.S. District Court judge to compel Verizon to comply, and the judge, in separate rulings issued in January and April, ordered Verizon to turn over the names.

However, those rulings were temporarily put on hold when Verizon asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to intervene and delay the requirement to turn the names over pending a ruling on the merits of the case. In a two-paragraph ruling issued Wednesday, the appeals panel refused the delay request.

The RIAA cheered the ruling, characterizing it as a victory for copyright holders.

"The Court of Appeals decision confirms our long-held position that music pirates must be held accountable for their actions and not be allowed to hide behind the company that provides their Internet service," RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a statement.

Sarah Deutsch, a vice president at Verizon, said she was disappointed with the ruling. "We intend to comply, but we remain concerned about the RIAA and other copyright and non-copyright holders' potential uses and abuses of these subpoenas," she said.

In September, the company will have the chance to argue the validity of the disputed subpoenas at the hearing. A Verizon victory there could prevent it from having to turn over subscribers' identities in other cases, while an RIAA victory may mean a new slew of subpoenas to discover the names of file swappers.

Meanwhile, both sides are closely watching for legislation coming soon from a Republican lawmaker that would require copyright holders to file an actual legal case against a suspected infringer before they seek the subscriber's identity via a subpoena.