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Another blow to recording industry

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WASHINGTON — A second U.S. appeals court ruled Tuesday that the recording industry can't force Internet providers to identify music downloaders under a disputed copyright law.

The decision doesn't significantly affect the industry's continuing campaign to sue Internet users.

The 2-1 ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis affirms another appeals court's decision in Washington in December 2003. Both courts ruled against efforts by the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade organization for the largest labels, to compel Internet providers to identify customers accused of illegally distributing songs over the Internet.

In the Missouri case, judges said that Charter Communications Inc., one of the nation's largest Internet providers, wasn't responsible for 93 of its customers allegedly trading 100,000 copyrighted music files across the Internet and shouldn't have been compelled to identify them under the 1988 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The appeals court said Charter's role was "confined to acting as a conduit in the transfer of files through its network."

Since the earlier ruling, the music industry has filed civil lawsuits nationwide against "John Doe" defendants, based on their Internet addresses, then worked through the courts to learn their names. That process is more complicated — and more expensive — for the record labels.

The RIAA said it will continue to sue thousands of people it accuses of illegally sharing music. "Our enforcement efforts won't miss a beat," spokesman Jonathan Lamy said.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Diana E. Murphy complained that the rulings prevent copyright holders from easily protecting their works and said repercussions were "too easily ignored or minimized." She wrote that the industry's practice of filing lawsuits against anonymous defendants was "cumbersome and expensive."