A moral analysis of the ‘RIAA v. Verizon’ case

Publication Date30 Nov 2004
AuthorRichard A. Spinello
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
A Moral Analysis of the ‘RIAA v. Verizon’ Case
The music industry has been struggling
with the problem of music piracy in cyber-
space for the past several years. The
Recording Industry Association of
America (RIAA) took on Napster and won,
but true peer-to-peer (P2P) networks have
rapidly emerged to take Napster’s place. A
P2P network is defined as one in which
“two or more computers share [files} with-
out requiring a separate server computer or
server software” (Cope, 2002). Unlike serv-
er-based technology, with a peer-to-peer
network any computer in the network can
function as the distribution point. In this
way, one central server is not inundated
with requests from multiple clients. P2P
systems, therefore, enable file sharing
among individual personal computers rely-
ing on the Internet infrastructure. For
example, a user can prompt his or her per-
sonal computer to ask other PC’s in a peer-
to-peer network if they have a certain digi-
tal file. That request is passed along from
computer to computer within the network
until the file is located and a copy is down-
loaded to the requester’s system (Spinello,
2004). The P2P software program known
as KaZaA is extremely popular – it has been
downloaded by approximately 240 million
Internet users as of late 2003.
In the past, music companies have been
quite hesitant to enforce copyright law by
pursuing the direct infringers through liti-
gation. These people were their customers,
and there was fear of a broad backlash
among the general public. Major music
companies, represented by the RIAA, pre-
ferred to pursue the purveyors of P2P soft-
Info, Comm & Ethics in Society (2004) 2: 203–215
© 2004 Troubador Publishing Ltd.
Copyright Act
Digital music
Providers (ISP)
Richard A. Spinello
Carroll School of Management, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA
Email: richard.spinello@bc.edu
The RIAA v. Verizon case offers an opportunity to analyze the scope of an Internet service provider's
responsibility to help deter copyright infringement. In this case, the RIAA served Verizon with a sub-
poena requesting the identity of two users who were making available copyrighted recordings for down-
loading on peer-to-peer networks. The main axis of discussion is whether or not Verizon has a moral obli-
gation to reveal the names of these individuals. Should Verizon cooperate with the RIAA or should it
seek to shield the identity of these users in order to protect their anonymity and privacy? A secondary
theme concerns Verizon's prospective responsibility to curtail infringement. We will argue that Verizon
and other ISPs have a limited obligation to assist copyright holders by disclosing the identity of
infringers, but we contend that any prospective responsibility is constrained by law and technological

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