Verizon Communications has had a long history of standing up against publishers seeking to subpoena information about its subscribers and their downloading habits, so it’s not a big surprise to see Big Red telling John Wiley’s lawyers to stuff it. Wiley is seeking information on the people behind IP addresses that Wiley says have pirated copies of its popular “For Dummies” series.
According to TorrentFreak, Verizon has argued that the request for subscriber information is flawed for several reasons, including that an IP address may lead to a name, but that name may not be the alleged pirate, and that the request seemed like it was designed to harass subscribers rather than achieve any legitimate legal goal. With this argument, Verizon joins others, including judges, that are beginning to view the content industry’s efforts to flush our pirates as a type of extortion designed to get a settlement.
As my colleague Jeff Roberts wrote in November when one of these suits was filed:
The decision to sue “John Does” reflects the fact that John Wiley cannot immediately identify the actual names of the file-sharers. The publisher is therefore using a procedural tactic that permits it to amend the complaint later on in order to add the defendants’ real names which it can obtain from internet service providers.
John Wiley’s goal with the litigation is likely to force the defendants to agree to a settlement rather than go to a full-blown trial. The publisher has considerable leverage because the Copyright Act provides draconian penalties of up to $150,000 per infringement, meaning many defendants could be willing to pay a few thousand dollars to end the matter.
Verizon’s decision to stand up for its users probably has less to do with some chest-thumping love of online freedom, and more to do with its historical reluctance to become an arm of the law when it comes to policing users for illegal downloads. While many of the historical suits of this nature have focused on music and pornography, the publishing industry and others are seeing their chance to take a little back from online pirates.
If they are successful Verizon and other ISPs face a future of flushing out the John Does on their network and handing their names over to the content industry. That costs money and doesn’t exactly make your customers love you. For a sense of Verizon’s dilemma, check out this 2003 article for a reminder of the era when the RIAA was employing similar tactics to drag potential pirates into the bright lights of the courtroom:
[Sarah Deutsch, who was counsel for Verizon] had received dozens of subpoenas from RIAA and other entertainment trade groups, all of them fairly routine requests. But this one was different. Subscriber X wasn’t hosting illegal content on Verizon’s network; he was a Kazaa client that used Verizon for Internet access, and the disputed content was stored on his hard drive. Verizon had no way of verifying RIAA’s allegations. Deutsch refused to give up Subscriber X’s name.
“We’re not going to become the Internet police for RIAA,” Deutsch said. “There’s a delicate balance between copyright holders’ rights and our customers’ rights that needs to be preserved. RIAA crossed over the line.”
Looks like Verizon feels like Wiley is stepping over that line nine years later.