However, the decision is unlikely to affect the RIAA's current campaign of taking legal action against file-swappers.
The case dates back to August 2002 when the RIAA took the telecoms giant to court because it refused to identify customers who were making available MP3 files of copyrighted songs from their home computers, using file-sharing services like Kazaa. Until this time, the RIAA had concentrated its legal efforts on those providing the P2P services.
The RIAA served a subpoena on Verizon – basically a demand for the identity of alleged infringers – under a provision of America's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allows a subpoena to be issued to a copyright owner, without the approval of a court, in order to identify an alleged infringer.
Verizon did not comply with the subpoena, arguing that because the allegedly infringing files resided on a home PC and not Verizon's servers, the subpoena was not valid. The RIAA countered that the legislation does not specify that the infringing material reside on the ISP's network.
A district court ruled in favour of the industry in January 2002, but in December last year the decision was reversed when the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the RIAA could not force ISPs to reveal the identities of file-sharers on the basis of the DMCA subpoenas.
As a result the RIAA has had to change its means of identifying file-sharers, adopting instead the more traditional method of filing "John Doe" lawsuits. Since December, therefore, the RIAA has still been able to sue file-sharers – 5,441 of them to date, according to reports – but now has to obtain court-approved subpoenas, which can then be served on ISPs.
The change in tactic means that file-sharers are able to challenge the subpoenas before their identities are revealed.
The US Supreme Court has now effectively upheld the Appeal Court ruling with its decision yesterday not to hear the RIAA's appeal.
Verizon welcomed the announcement.
"Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the personal privacy, First Amendment rights to free speech and free association, and the safety of every internet user in this country," said Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel for Verizon. "This decision means copyright holders and their representatives – or identity thieves and stalkers posing as copyright holders – will not be allowed to obtain personal information about internet users by simply filing a one-page form with a court clerk."
"The Supreme Court's refusal to take the case leaves the DC Circuit's well-reasoned opinion as law," said Wendy Seltzer, lawyer with rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had supported Verizon in the action. "The DMCA doesn't give the RIAA a blank fishing license to issue subpoenas and invade internet users' privacy."
But Stanley Pierre-Louis, the RIAA's senior vice president of legal affairs, told Wired News that the decision "will not deter our ongoing anti-piracy efforts," describing the current 'John Doe' approach as "an effective legal tool."