As music CD prices skyrocket and Internet connections grow increasingly faster, file-sharing websites have quickly become the way to download music from popular and less-known artists alike.

However, all the conveniences of free music may soon end.

Last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Bates decided that Verizon Internet Service must reveal the identity of a file-swapping Internet user to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). This particular user, according to the 37-page court decision, is “alleged to have infringed copyrights with respect to 600 songs downloaded from the Internet in a single day.”

The music downloading took place on Kazaa, a popular file-swapping website with over 179 million users who share files.

With the RIAA attributing a 7% decline in CD sales during the first half of last year to music downloading on the Internet, this most recent ruling could open the door for the group to tackle individuals who swap files online.

The RIAA represents most major labels of the U.S. recording industry and attempts to protect its members from copyright infringements, such as those that occur during the peer-to-peer file sharing of copyrighted materials on sites like Kazaa. This group was responsible for the court injunction that forced Napster, the Internet’s first major file-sharing service, to shutdown in 2001.

Back on July 24, 2002, the RIAA issued Verizon a subpoena to reveal the identity of the particular user based on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which permits “a copyright owner to obtain and serve a subpoena on a service provider (such as Verizon) seeking the identity of a customer alleged to be infringing the owner’s copyright.”

However, Verizon refused to comply with the subpoena, insisting that the copyright infringement material was being stored on the hard drive of the customer’s computer, and so did not concern its company. It was at this point that the RIAA sued Verizon to put the subpoena into effect, and the case landed in the Washington, D.C. District Court.

In his ruling, Bates criticized Verizon’s refusal to comply with the subpoena in the first place: “Under Verizon’s reading of the act, a significant amount of potential copyright infringement would be shielded from the subpoena authority of the DMCA. That would, in effect, give Internet copyright infringers shelter from the long arm of the DMCA subpoena power, and allow infringement to flourish.”

In reaction to Bates’ decision, Verizon’s vice-president and associate general counsel Sarah Deutsch, released a statement saying “The court’s decision has troubling ramifications for consumers, service providers and the growth of the Internet. It opens the door for anyone who makes a mere allegation of copyright infringement to gain complete access to private subscriber information without the due process protections afforded by the courts.”

All users of Kazaa are technically subject to a similar court decision. Sharman Networks Ltd., the parent company of Kazaa, lists a legal disclaimer on its site: “We may need to disclose personal information if required by law. For example, to comply with a current judicial proceeding, a court order or legal process.” In addition, its user agreement warns that fines and jail time are possible repercussions for embers who break copyright laws.

According to Verizon’s website, the Internet Service Provider plans on appealing the federal court’s decision, although it is not clear when this may happen.

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