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SBC raps RIAA subpoenas in court

The company challenges the legality of subpoenas from the record industry that sought information from Internet subscribers alleged to have offered copyrighted songs for download.

Lawyers from the record industry and telecommunications giant SBC Communications faced off in a San Francisco courtroom Friday in a dispute over the record label's legal charges against file swappers.

The Internet service provider is challenging the legality of subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) that sought information on SBC Internet subscribers alleged to have offered copyrighted songs for download through peer-to-peer services such as Kazaa.

Those subpoenas were a prelude to lawsuits the RIAA subsequently filed against more than 300 people for copyright infringement. However, SBC contends that the original subpoena process was unconstitutional, because the RIAA had not yet filed any case against a subscriber.

In many respects, the case echoes that of Verizon Communications last year, which also challenged an early round of RIAA subpoenas. The federal judge's ruling in that case--that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) enabled groups such as the RIAA to seek information about ISP subscribers through this type of subpoena--paved the way for the RIAA's legal campaign.

Critics of the DMCA say SBC's case may have a better chance of success than Verizon's, because the subpoenas have now been issued thousands of times, and the burdens on courts and the threats of exposing people's private information are no longer theoretical.

"Now you have more of a record of people using and misusing the DMCA," said Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has consistently opposed the RIAA's legal actions.

The hearing focused on the RIAA's motion to dismiss SBC's case and on the telecom company's motion for summary judgment, a ruling that would grant SBC a victory before going to a full trial. Judge Susan Illston queried both sides on why the case should be held in California instead of Washington, D.C., where the original subpoenas were filed.

Illston did not rule immediately, but a decision could come at any time.