WASHINGTON -- Internet providers must abide by music industry requests to track down computer users who illegally download music, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in a case that could dramatically increase online pirates' risk of being caught.
The decision by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates upheld the recording industry's powers under a 1998 law to compel Verizon Communications Inc. to identify one of its Internet subscribers who was suspected of illegally trading music or movies online. The music industry knew only a numerical Internet address this person was using.
The ruling means that consumers using dozens of popular Internet file-sharing programs can more easily be identified and tracked down by entertainment companies trying to prevent the illegal trading of movies and music. For consumers, even those hiding behind Internet aliases, that could result in warning letters, civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution.
"Just because you can doesn't mean it's legal to become a digital Johnny Appleseed," warned Michael McGuire, an industry analyst for Gartner Inc., a research firm in Stamford, Conn.
Verizon promised Tuesday to appeal and said it would not immediately provide its customer's identity. The ruling had "troubling ramifications" for future growth of the Internet, said Verizon's associate general counsel, Sarah B. Deutsch.
"The case clearly allows anyone who claims to be a copyright holder to make an allegation of copyright infringement to gain complete access to private subscriber information without protections afforded by the courts," she said.
Deutsch said Verizon planned no immediate changes to disrupt sharing of computer files among its customers.
'A huge burden'
Critics of the procedure said judges ought to be more directly involved, given the potential privacy issues of a corporation revealing personal information about customers amid an allegation of wrongdoing.
"This puts a huge burden on Internet service providers," said Harris Miller, head of the Washington-based Information Technology Association of America, a trade group. "It turns them into judge, jury and executioner just because someone makes an allegation about a problem."
In the past, the entertainment industry has acknowledged accusing one subscriber of illegally offering for download the movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," even though the computer file in question actually was a child's book report on the subject.
"There's almost no judicial supervision here," said Stewart Baker, who represented a trade group of Internet providers that sought to intervene in the case.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, which fought the music industry on this issue, predicted its rival "will be cranking up its presses pretty quickly" to send threatening letters to Internet users sharing songs and movies.
"We're just sort of shaking our heads," said Will Rodger, a spokesman for the computer group, whose membership includes one firm, Streamcast, that creates file-sharing software. "This has the potential to really mushroom out of control, to be very burdensome."
During a contentious court hearing in October, the judge lamented ambiguities in the copyright act, saying Congress "could have made this statute clearer." At the time, the music industry said a ruling in its favor could result in warnings to scare Internet pirates into taking their collections offline.
"We would hope that the RIAA and other copyright holders would wait until this matter was decided by the Court of Appeals before flooding service providers with requests," Deutsch said.
The case arose from efforts by the recording association to track down a Verizon customer who was freely sharing copies of more than 600 songs by well-known artists.
Sherman said his organization, once it knows the Verizon customer's identity, would "let them know that what they are doing is illegal."
Through programs like Kazaa, Morpheus and Gnutella, a person can find virtually any song or movie -- sometimes even before it's released in stores -- and download it for free. On a typical afternoon, about 3 million people are connected on the Kazaa network and sharing more than 500 million files.