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Judge: RIAA can unmask file swappers

The ruling is the most detailed so far in any of the "John Doe" cases brought by the recording industry.

A federal judge has handed a preliminary victory to the recording industry by granting its request to unmask anonymous file swappers accused of copyright infringement.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin ruled Monday that Cablevision, which provides broadband Internet access in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, can be required to divulge the identities of its subscribers sued over copyright violations.

This ruling is the latest decision to clarify what legal methods copyright holders may use when hunting down people who are trading files on peer-to-peer networks. Courts have spent the last few years grappling with how to reconcile Americans' right to be anonymous with the entertainment industry's own right to sue people who violate copyright law.

Chin, in Manhattan, said that the implicit guarantee of anonymity in the Bill of Rights is an insufficient shield in this case: "Such a person's identity is not protected from disclosure by the First Amendment."

Lawyers following the case said it is significant because Chin's ruling is the most detailed so far in any of the many "John Doe" lawsuits brought by the Recording Industry Association of America. Chin said that while file swapping "qualifies as speech" to some degree, the RIAA's member companies had overcome the hurdle posed by the First Amendment and could compel "disclosure of the Doe defendants' identities."

Paul Levy, an attorney at the nonprofit group Public Citizen, said that "the nice thing about the ruling is that (the judge) recognizes the First Amendment interests at stake here and he applies a balancing test." Levy, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the RIAA, said that Chin's analysis ensures that companies filing a copyright infringement lawsuit must prove they have a real case and aren't merely on a fishing expedition for someone's name.

Stanley Pierre-Louis, a senior vice president for legal affairs at the RIAA, said in an e-mail statement: "Judge Chin's ruling makes it abundantly clear that those who engage in copyright infringement over the Internet, whether on peer-to-peer networks or otherwise, should not expect to remain anonymous."

Investigators working with the RIAA had traced the Internet addresses of 40 suspected peer-to-peer pirates to Cablevision's network. RIAA lawyers sent a subpoena to Cablevision, which turned over the names of the "John Doe" defendants in February.

Chin said he was willing to consider the First Amendment aspects anyway--even after the names were divulged--because the RIAA could have been "ordered to return the information and prohibited from using it" if the outcome of Monday's ruling had been different.

Aden Fine, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "It's not a victory or a defeat. The important part of the opinion is that it emphasizes that accusations saying an individual is engaged in illegal speech don't mean the First Amendment provides no protections." The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation had also filed amicus briefs against the RIAA.

The RIAA turned to "John Doe" lawsuits after a federal appeals court ruled late last year that the association could no longer rely on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's turbocharged subpoenas to unmask suspected pirates.

The DMCA contains provisions for unmasking file swappers without a judge's approval, but a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., barred those methods from being used. While that decision is not technically binding on other areas of the country, it is influential. RIAA litigators appear to have decided that filing "John Doe" lawsuits with unnamed defendants is a less risky legal strategy.