- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2004


The Supreme Court yesterday sidestepped a dispute over whether Internet providers can be forced to identify subscribers who are illegally swapping music and movies online.

The subject, however, may be back in the court soon.

The Bush administration agrees with recording and movie companies that want to use a 1998 law to obtain information about Internet users, but the administration also had encouraged the Supreme Court to wait to settle the issue.

The recording industry now has sought court intervention, arguing that more than 2.6 billion music files are downloaded illegally each month and that the law is needed to identify culprits.

The copyright law was written before file swapping was common, and an appeals court said the law could not be used to get information about people who share copyrighted files.

“That is crippling the private-copyright enforcement that Congress envisioned as a bulwark against Internet lawlessness, and allowing Internet piracy to metastasize,” justices were told in a filing by Washington lawyer Donald Verrilli, who represents the Recording Industry Association of America.

“Copyright owners cannot fight back unless they know who the infringers are,” he said.

Lawyers for Verizon Communications Inc., which tried to keep private the names and addresses of subscribers, disputed that the industry has been deterred in going after people who trade copyrighted works by computer.

More than 3,000 users have been sued since the appeals court’s decision 10 months ago, Verizon lawyer John Thorne said. Those civil suits identify defendants as “John Doe,” then seek court permission to obtain their names.

He warned justices that courts could be swamped with tens of thousands of disputed subpoena-enforcement proceedings if they sided with the recording industry.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act compels Internet providers to turn over the names of people suspected of operating pirate Web sites upon subpoena from any federal-court clerk’s office.

The appeals court had said it was up to Congress, not the courts, to expand the 1998 law to cover popular file-sharing networks.

Also yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider yesterday whether family members can sue in federal court because a 14-year-old girl cut her finger on a StarKist tuna can and suffered permanent damage.

The case raises a technical issue over the family’s access to federal courts if their harm does not amount to at least $75,000 — the minimum required under U.S. law — but the girl’s separate lawsuit claiming physical damages and pain and suffering does.

Beatriz Blanco-Ortega, then 9, was at school in Puerto Rico when she cut her finger on the tuna can and bled profusely for nearly 30 minutes. After a nurse stopped the bleeding, her mother took her in for surgery. The doctor reported that she incurred scarring and a minor permanent impairment that could worsen over time.

Beatriz and her family then filed separate lawsuits in federal court against StarKist Foods Inc. The girl’s suit claimed physical damages and pain and suffering; the relatives claimed emotional distress after seeing the girl’s anguish.

A lower court allowed the girl’s lawsuit, but barred family members’ claims as unlikely to reach $75,000 in damages. The family, wishing to avoid local courts because jury trials aren’t available in Puerto Rico, then argued that the lawsuits should proceed in tandem with the girl’s lawsuit because they rely on the same basic facts.

In other business cases yesterday, the high court:

• Declined to hear a trio of cases seeking to reinstate federal regulations that would force regional phone carriers to share their networks with competitors at discounted rates.

• Agreed to decide whether Hawaii went too far to keep gasoline affordable for residents when it imposed rent caps on dealer-run stations.

• Refused to decide whether the Pentagon is constitutionally obligated to give the news media access to U.S. troops during combat.

• Declined to step into a dispute over whether a restaurant chain must pay its employees for unused vacation time if they quit or are fired within a year.

• Refused to consider Union Pacific Railroad’s appeal of a $30 million damage award to a man partially paralyzed in a railroad-crossing collision.

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