Working on behalf of various copyright owners including Warner Bros. and BMG, last year anti-piracy company Rightscorp began sending subpoenas to dozens of smaller ISPs in the United States. The aim, as usual, was to unmask alleged file-sharers so that they could be pursued for cash settlement.
While many ISPs complied with the requests, the practice was controversial. Such subpoenas aren’t considered applicable in file-sharing cases and largely avoid scrutiny since they can by signed by a court clerk and are not reviewed by a judge.
In 2014, telecoms company Birch Communications kicked back by refusing to hand over customer details of subsidiary ISP, CBeyond. The company filed a motion to quash Rightscorp’s subpoena arguing that the anti-piracy outfit had embarked on a fishing exercise with no legal basis.
“CBeyond contends that the section does not apply to service providers that act only as a conduit for data transferred between other parties and that do not store data. The court agrees,” Magistrate Judge Janet King said.
Faced with this setback Rightscorp filed objections to the ruling and sought to have it overturned. The company has now failed in that effort. Last week the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia adopted the earlier ruling and quashed Rightscorp’s subpoena.
“We safeguard our customer information and take privacy issues seriously,” Birch President and Chief Executive Officer Vincent Oddo said in a statement.
“The U.S. District Court did the right thing by backing our view, and we’re very pleased to see that this case will serve to help protect our customers’ private information.”
Birch Senior Vice President and General Counsel Christopher Bunce says the company’s first response is to always protect subscriber privacy.
“Our first order of business when anyone requests access to a customer’s private information is to refuse, absent a valid subpoena or court order, which we then scrutinize as we did with Rightscorp’s illegal subpoena in this matter,” Bunce says.
According to Gardiner Davis who acted as lead litigation counsel for Birch, Rightscorp’s interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was far too liberal.
“They had not even filed a copyright infringement lawsuit,” Davis said. “So this attempt was essentially a fishing expedition and I think this ruling was correctly and wisely decided. The court interpreted the statute as Congress intended.”
The defeat represents another blow to an embattled Rightscorp. The company’s latest financial report reveals a company hemorrhaging cash, despite substantial year-on-year growth.