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A US federal appeals court has dealt the RIAA a long awaited kick to the groin in its pursuit of file swappers, saying the music label lobby group can no longer force Internet providers to turn over their customers names.

The Friday ruling from a three-judge panel hearing the case for the Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia is likely to slow down the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) hunt for file swappers. The judges have blocked the pigopolist mob from being able to subpoena users' names from ISPs. This decision overturns a district court ruling earlier this year that ordered Verizon to give up the goods on its customers.

"We conclude . . . as Verizon contends, a subpoena may be issued only to an ISP engaged in storing on its servers material that is infringing or the subject of infringing activity," the court wrote.

The court noted that it's the actual users that store and trade files - not the ISP. It then backed Verizon's argument that the ISP has no power to remove infringing material stored by users or even to identify the infringing material itself.

The RIAA, of course, contends that blocking a user's access to the Internet would solve the infringement problem, giving customers no way to trade files. The court, however, again sided with Verizon here, saying an individual's access to copyrighted songs and to the Internet are two different matters all together.

The judges were harsh at times in the opinion, calling some of the RIAA's arguments silly and largely saying the RIAA has no merits for its case.

We bring you the closing of the statement in full, as it truly gets to the heart of the matter and delivers a serious blow to broad applications of the DMCA.

"We are not unsympathetic either to the RIAA's concern regarding the widespread infringement of its members' copyrights, or to the need for legal tools to protect those rights. It is not the province of the courts, however, to rewrite the DMCA in order to make it fit a new and unforseen internet architecture, no matter how damaging that development has been to the music industry or threatens being to the motion picture and software industries. The plight of copyrightholders must be addressed in the first instance by the Congress; only the Congress has the constitutional authority and the institutional ability to accommodate fully the varied permutations of competing interests that are inevitably implicated by such new technology.

"The stakes are large for the music, motion picture, and software industries and their role in fostering technological innovation and our popular culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that even as this case was being argued, committees of the Congress were considering how best to deal with the threat to copyrights posed by P2P file sharing schemes."

Sometimes the threats of government intervention in technology matters can be frightening. It's rare that the old guard trained to move slow can wrap its head around quickly moving subjects. But in a battle between the government and a music label lobby group, the Feds should win.

What was Verizon's take on the matter?

"Today's ruling is an important victory for Internet users and all consumers. The court has knocked down a dangerous procedure that threatens Americans' traditional legal guarantees and violates their constitutional rights," said Sarah Deutsch, associate general counsel at Verizon.

"This decision removes the threat of a radical, new subpoena process that empowers copyright holders or anyone merely claiming to be a copyright holder to obtain personal information about Internet users by simply filing a one-page form with a court clerk. This harmful procedure exposes anyone who uses the Internet to potential predators, scam artists and crooks -- including identity thieves and stalkers."

The RIAA can still sue song swappers but must go through the more costly process of filing individual "John Doe" lawsuits against the anonymous traders. These lawsuits would be required to obtain the person's identity. Under the ISP subpoena process the RIAA had been using, it needed only pay a small fee - less than $100 - to obtain user info from a county clerk. ®

See the decision here in PDF.

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