Music Pirates Caught in a Net

After many legal battles and skirmishes, the fight to protect the copyrights of recording artists and the music industry has entered an interesting phase: Letting someone else do the policing.

A federal court judge recently ruled that Verizon Communications, as an Internet provider, must help the music industry identify computer users who are illegally downloading music.

Call that song: "Privacy Lost."

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It's a neat legal trick by the Recording Industry Association of America to have telecommunications companies become the cyberpolice nabbing online tune scofflaws.

After losing many battles itself over the years, the music industry may have found a surrogate force in Internet providers. Under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the providers may be required to obey. If so, it will take only a few high-profile cases of downloaders (freeloaders?) being nabbed by their Internet providers and then fined to make many people think twice about this practice.

But the court ruling doesn't settle the final legal issue of whether two individuals, simply sharing music by e-mail, are infringing on a copyright and "stealing" royalties from the artists or the recording companies.

Much of the file sharing on the Net takes advantage of a free and open exchange mechanism - part of the Internet's interesting, emerging democracy. At the same time, questions of "fair use" remain mostly unresolved.

In the meantime, there's the issue of forcing companies such as Verizon to tag subscribers suspected of music piracy (all that the music industry knew was a numbered Internet address). The ruling allows anyone who wants tomerely allege a copyright infringement to get information on a Web subscriber, and press charges.

Even the ruling judge in this case said his decision would test the subpoena powers of Congress under the 1998 act. Indeed, current law may be too lax in allowing any district attorney's office to obtain such a subpoena, without a judge's involvement.

While the ruling represents only a tactical victory for the music industry, it does add an off-note to the song still being written about balancing the rights of the entertainment industry and the freedom of US consumers.

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