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Exclusive Tiscali threatened to disconnect a customer for illegally downloading a TV show last week, after receiving a copyright infringement notice from a Hollywood studio. The only problem was the customer had quit the ISP months before the alleged transgression was made.

Euan MacLay had been a customer of Freedom2Surf (F2S) for two years until it was taken over by Tiscali as part of the Pipex acquisition last year. His past experience of the Italian buyer's customer service was poor, so as soon as his Freedom2Surf line was due to be migrated to Tiscali's budget network he decided to switch.

That was in early March this year, and Euan never expected to hear from Freedom2Surf again.

But he did. On 23 August Eaun received an email from abuse@pipex.net, accusing him of illegally downloading an episode of Stargate Atlantis - a sci-fi show he does not watch - via BitTorrent, a filesharing protocol he does not use. Most unlikely of all, the alleged infringement took place on 16 August, almost six months after he had quit F2S.

The email said:

We have received a complaint regarding an allegation of Copyright Infringement. We were supplied an IP address of the system that was sharing the alleged copyrighted material, which we traced to your PIPEX ADSL account... Failure to respond or further infringements will cause your account to be temporarily suspended,and could also result in your account being terminated.

We've reproduced the whole email on the second page of this article. The complaint was made by BayTSP, a well-known anti-piracy contractor (see also Digiprotect, Logistep), acting on behalf of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), the movie studio. It called on F2S to "immediately remove or block access to the infringing material".

On receiving the accusation, Euan's first thought was that it was a hoax or phishing attempt. But digging out details of his old F2S account revealed that the IP address fingered by BayTSP had indeed belonged to his line many months earlier and must have been reassigned. "I was absolutely shocked," Euan told El Reg. "How could they get something so basic so wrong?"

It seems Tiscali had not been updating the abuse system's list of IP number assignments since it took over. An F2S employee told Euan: "When I had a look at our systems it was clear that your account was closed on 03/03/08 and the IP that you were using was allocated to a new customer after that. Our systems clearly show this so I am not 100 per cent sure how the abuse team got your name associated to the IP."

A spokeswoman for Tiscali told El Reg:

Freedom2Surf apologises for this error. The email was generated by an automatic F2S abuse system managed externally. This system is no longer in place and has very recently been brought in house as part of the integration of Pipex's platforms with Tiscali.

BayTSP uses similar methods for identifying alleged download pirates to those being deployed by the BPI on behalf of the UK record industy, and by the law firm Davenport Lyons on behalf of a group of videogame publishers. They simply monitor public BitTorrent networks and log the files being shared, an IP number, and timestamp. A reverse DNS lookup can then identify the ISP providing the connection and an infringment notice generated.

The process has been automated as rights holders bid to turn the tide of illegal filesharing, and lawyers aim to create a new market in internet copyright enforcement against individuals. Davenport Lyons has boasted it will use IP addresses to obtain the names and addresses of 25,000 UK broadband users via court order. Rather than send an infringement notice to the ISP, Davenport Lyons' targets will get a letter direct, demanding £300 to avoid being taken to court.

For Euan, that the allegations against him were baseless was obvious. However, the fact that such an elementary mistake has been made so early in the government-backed rearguard action against downloaders is concerning. Expect more of this, whether the errors are made at ISP level, or in the flawed (pdf) infringment identification process. ®

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