The Recording Industry Assn. of America in 2003 served subpoenas on two universities, seeking the identities of two individuals who were downloading unauthorized music files. The universities provided


The Recording Industry Assn. of America in 2003 served subpoenas on two universities, seeking the identities of two individuals who were downloading unauthorized music files. The universities provided Internet access to these students. No lawsuit was filed.

Initially the universities -- North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- did not object. After they notified the individuals, however, John Doe and Jane Doe filed motions to quash the subpoenas. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina issued its opinion nearly two years later on April 14, 2005, quashing the subpoenas.

The following is a summary of the court's opinion.

The DMCA Provisions: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), enacted in 1998, intended to balance the need for rapid response to potential infringement on the Internet with the end users' legitimate interests in not having material removed from the Internet without recourse. It also intended to balance the interests of copyright holders and Internet service providers by creating a mechanism for rights holders to inform ISPs of potentially infringing conduct, while providing greater certainty to service providers regarding their legal exposure for infringements that may occur in the course of their activities.

The compromise reached in the DMCA provides immunity to ISPs from liability for passive, automatic actions. This immunity is only provided to innocent ISPs that can prove they do not have actual or constructive knowledge of the infringement. At the moment the ISP loses its innocence -- when it becomes aware that a third party is using its system to infringe -- the ISP then has the responsibility to disable the infringing matter.

For example, a copyright owner who suspects that her copyright is being infringed must follow the notice and take down provisions in the Act. Once the ISP is properly notified, it must respond expeditiously to remove or disable access to the material. If it fails to do so, it exposes itself to copyright infringement liability.

In addition to the notice provisions, the Act also established several "safe harbors" that protect certain common activities of ISPs. These provisions give limited protection from liability to four types of service providers: (1) providers with transitory digital network communications that simply allow information to pass through their systems from one user to another person; (2) providers with system caching that temporarily store data from one user before passing it to another person at the request of the user; (3) providers that allow users to store data on the provider's system or network for longer periods of time; and (4) providers that maintain data on their network or system for use with an information location tool or service.

After compliance with various requirements, all four types of providers may gain immunity from liability for infringing material that passes through, or is stored on, their networks or systems by users.

The court noted that last three types of providers all engage in some for of information storage. Also, under the Act they must all respond to a written notification of infringement from the copyright holder who provides certain information in the notice.

The Act also provides that copyright owners and their agents may request the clerk of any U.S. District Court to issue a subpoena to a service provider for identification of an alleged infringer. The subpoena may be requested by filing: (1) a copy of the notification that was provided to the ISP; (2) the proposed subpoena as prepared by the requesting party; and (3) a sworn declaration that the purpose of the subpoena is only to obtain the alleged infringer's identify and that the information will only be used to protect rights under the Act.

The language of the subpoena is required to state that the ISP must expeditiously disclose to the copyright owner the information that identifies the alleged infringer as described in the notice.

Factual Background: In this case, the RIAA obtained subpoenas according to the Act.

The motions to quash the subpoenas, filed by John Doe and Jane Doe who claimed to have the user names targeted by the RIAA, raised statutory, procedural and constitutional arguments.

Statutory Argument: The users claimed that the subpoena provision of the Act only applies to the last three types of providers -- not to providers that simply allowed information to pass through their systems from one user to another person. The court noted that two appellate courts agreed with this position (Recording Industry Assn. of America v. Verizon Internet Services, 351 F.3d 1229, D.C. Circuit, 2003; Recording Industry Assn. of America v. Charter Communications, 393 F.3d 771, 8th Circuit, 2005)

The court noted that a provider that supplies transitory digital communication is not subject to the notice provisions because there is no stored material to remove or access to disable. Since the subpoena section requires that the notice accompany the application, the court stated that Congress did not intend to allow a party to subpoena this type of ISP.

Since permitting a subpoena without a notice would "necessarily amount to the rewriting of the statute," the court held that this type of ISP may not be subpoenaed to provide identification.

Procedural Argument: Jane Doe also argued that North Carolina State University, the ISP targeted by the subpoena in her case, is located in the eastern district of North Carolina rather than in the middle district where this case was heard. The venue statute requires a case to be filed where the defendant resides or where a substantial part of the claims arose. Therefore, the subpoena was not obtained in the proper venue.

The RIAA argued that the venue statute only applies to civil actions, not to the issuance of subpoenas.

The court noted that nationwide service of process under federal law must be distinguished from jurisdiction and venue. The fact that a party may be served at any place in the country does not mean that every court has jurisdiction over the matter, or that venue is proper everywhere. The subpoena power of a court cannot be more extensive than its jurisdiction.

Although the DMCA states that the copyright owner or agent can seek a subpoena from any District Court, not every court has jurisdiction to issue a subpoena compelling action from persons outside of the district.

Therefore, the court held that the subpoena obtained in the middle district could not be served on the university in the eastern district.

The court did not address the constitutional question since the case was resolved on other grounds.

Case: In Re Subpoena to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Recording Industry Assn. of America v. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, case no. 1:03MC138; consolidated with In Re Subpoena to North Carolina State University, Recording Industry Assn. of America v. North Carolina State University, case no. 1:03MC139
Court: U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Caroline, U.S. Magistrate Judge Russell A. Eliason, April 14, 2005
Counsel: Not identified in the opinion