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ISPs hit with piracy suit

The Software Publishers Association files civil lawsuits against three Internet service providers, alleging that their customers are violating software copyrights.

As part of an escalating crackdown on Internet software piracy, the Software Publishers Association this week filed civil lawsuits against three Internet service providers, alleging that the ISPs' customers are violating software copyrights.

As previously reported by CNET, the SPA--a trade organization that counts Microsoft, Netscape Communications, and Apple Computer among its members--is increasingly focusing its antipiracy efforts on ISPs. Late last month, a small Georgia ISP, Intergate, reluctantly closed down a user's personal Web page after the SPA said it contained hyperlinks to hacker Web sites containing copyright violations.

Intergate is one of 22 ISPs that complied with a letter from the SPA entitled the "ISP Code of Conduct", which asked the ISPs to monitor their networks for pirated software. This week, the SPA filed its lawsuit alleging contributory copyright infringement against the three ISPs that didn't agree to sign the ISP code of conduct.

The ISPs named in this week's lawsuit include Community Connexion, GeoCities, and Tripod.

The SPA filed the lawsuit on behalf of three software companies, Adobe Systems, Claris, and Travelling Software. Products from the three companies were among the software that was distributed illegally on the ISPs' networks.

"Our first tact was to get ISPs on the right side of the copyright battle," Sandra Sellers, vice president of intellectual property, education, and enforcement at the SPA, said today. "We don't want to go after ISPs. We want to work with them."

But Intergate and online civil rights group, Electronic Frontiers Georgia, believe that the SPA's efforts to combat software piracy may compromise the privacy and free speech rights of Netizens, especially if ISPs are roped in as enforcers of copyright infringement lawsuits.

In the Intergate case, for example, the ISP's servers did not actually host pirated software. The page that was removed was written by a user nicknamed "Tapu" and merely linked to other Web sites with so-called codes for cracking into programs.

"We had no pirated software on the system at all," said Jeff McGough, president of Intergate. "Information cannot be made illegal. It was a pointer. We should be able to put that page back up."

Some legal experts are concerned that this SPA's policy may be stretching the limits of existing copyright laws to try and account for alleged online violations.

"The SPA is trying to push the law well beyond where it has been in the past," said Scott McClain, a lawyer specializing in first amendment and copyright issues at Bondurant, Mixson, & Elmore in Atlanta. "Intergate was being accused of assisting someone who was assisting someone who was assisting someone in copyright infringement."

McClain said the SPA's efforts may make ISPs quicker to censor users out of fear of legal action.

"Focusing on the ISP runs the risk of squelching speech without letting the courts decide," he said. "The ISP has a lot of incentive not to get involved in litigation for someone else. You get a letter from the SPA lawyer, and it's a lot cheaper for the ISP to lose one customer than to fight it in court."

Association officials were unclear about whether providing hyperlinks to pirated software really constitutes an act of copyright infringement.

"We don't have all the answers now," said Mark Traphagen, an SPA vice president. "It's going to be an evolving process."

Electronic Frontiers Georgia has posted a Web page as part of an effort to monitor the controversy sparked by the Intergate incident.

The SPA has already demonstrated its seriousness in chasing pirates into court. In addition to multiple lawsuits filed against corporations and commercial pirates, the association filed a lawsuit in July against Max Butler in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, accusing him of illegally distributing software on the Internet.

The organization said it filed the suit after receiving a tip that Butler illegally distributed software to friends by uploading it to an FTP site operated by Abwam, a small Internet service provider.