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Few hints from appeals court on music industry subpoenas

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court panel offered few hints Tuesday whether it will permit the music industry to continue using special copyright subpoenas to track and sue computer users who download songs over the Internet.

The three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia tossed tough questions at lawyers for all sides. Judges plainly wrestled with esoteric provisions of the disputed 1998 law that permits music companies and others to force Internet providers to turn over the names of suspected pirates.

The decision, expected later this fall, could have important consequences for the music industry's unprecedented campaign to discourage piracy through fears of expensive civil penalties or settlements.

The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the largest labels, has issued at least 1,500 such subpoenas this summer. It has filed civil lawsuits against 261 people it accused of illegally distributing music online and promised thousands more lawsuits.

Verizon Communications Inc. is challenging the constitutionality of the subpoenas under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. U.S. District Judge John D. Bates earlier had approved use of the subpoenas, forcing Verizon to turn over names and addresses for at least four Internet subscribers; since then Verizon has identified dozens of its other subscribers to music industry lawyers.

But if the appeals court was leaning in one direction by the end of Tuesday's hearing, it was indecipherable. One judge, John Roberts, alternately suggested that a "logical extension" of the 1998 law wouldn't permit such subpoenas in these music lawsuits; then he accused Verizon of profiting from the online piracy of its subscribers.

"You make a lot of money off piracy," Roberts told Verizon lawyer Andrew McBride. People who download large collections of music traditionally favor high-speed Internet connections like those offered by Verizon's Internet subsidiary.

"That is a canard," McBride shot back. He said Verizon makes money when computer users purchase songs from online services affiliated with Verizon.