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Charter Communications Subpoena Enforcement Matter

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Citation Edit

In re Charter Communications, Inc., Subpoena Enforcement Matter, 393 F.3d 771 (8th Cir. 2005) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Using “tracking” programs, the RIAA determined the IP addresses and user names of Charter subscribers who were allegedly infringing copyrighted music through peer-to-peer services. However, the IP addresses alone did the RIAA little good, because IP addresses only identify the Internet service provider through which users get access to the Internet. The RIAA needed Charter to link the IP addresses to specific names and addresses of its subscribers. To do that, the RIAA used the DMCA to obtained subpoenas from a federal District Court in Missouri requiring Charter to disclose its subscribers’ information.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

Charter responded to the subpoenas by filing a motion to quash them. The motion was not successful, at first. The District Court ordered Charter to disclose the names, addresses, and email addresses of approximately 220 of its subscribers. Charter filed a motion to stay in the District Court and Court of Appeals, but to no avail. Soon after, Charter reluctantly disclosed the names and addresses of its subscribers to the RIAA, and then appealed.

Charter’s appeal was important to the entertainment industry — so important, that several Internet, telecommunications, music, and movie companies filed amicus briefs on behalf of both Charter and the RIAA.

Appellate Court's Majority Opinion Edit

The outcome of that appeal was a victory for Charter. The appellate court vacated the District Court’s order to comply with RIAA’s subpoenas, and it ordered the RIAA to return and not use the information it had obtained about the identities of Charter’s subscribers. In an opinion by Judge Kermit Bye for a 2-to-1 majority, the Court of Appeals held that Charter’s function as a mere conduit for its allegedly infringing subscribers did not expose it to the DMCA’s subpoena power. Judge Bye reasoned that Charter is merely a conduit, because it only provides Internet access and does not store material for its subscribers.

Since the DMCA only authorizes subpoenas where “an ISP was storing, caching, or providing links to copyrighted material,” Judge Bye concluded that Charter fell outside the DMCA’s subpoena power. Judge Bye also stated that “a requirement of issuing subpoenas under the DMCA is an ISP’s ability to remove or disable one user’s access to infringing material.” Since Charter could not remove or disable a P2P user’s access to infringing material on another P2P user’s computer, Charter escaped RIAA’s subpoenas under the DMCA.

Appellate Court's Dissenting Opinion Edit

In a passionate dissent, Judge Diana Murphy chastised the majority. Judge Murphy reasoned that the DMCA did not limit the type of Internet service provider susceptible to subpoenas. Therefore, Judge Murphy concluded that the RIAA’s subpoenas were properly issued to Charter, because the DMCA’s definition of “service provider” specifically includes conduit service providers. Were this not so, Judge Murphy explained, copyright owners would be deprived of “the only viable way to vindicate their rights when infringing materials are transmitted across P2P networks, which is to subpoena the ISPs for disclosure of the identities of alleged infringers.”

The RIAA petitioned the Court of Appeals for a rehearing, but its petition was denied.

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