Irish ISP wins major legal victory against record labels

UPC, one of Ireland’s largest internet service providers, has won a major legal victory against four of the world’s most powerful record companies over the much-contested issue of online music piracy.

The High Court in Dublin ruled today that there was no precedent in Irish law to force ISPs to identify and disconnect people accused of illegally downloading copyrighted files, which means that despite the record companies requests, UPC will not be required to take part in the three strikes programme that had been on the table for some time now.

Warner Music, Universal Music, Sony BMG and EMI Records wanted a three strikes system that would including an informal warning at the first stage, designed to highlight the problem, a stern written warning at the second stage, threatening disconnection, and then a disconnection for seven days at the third stage. If a user continues to break the rules disconnection for a full year may follow.

This system was accepted and implimented earlier this year by Ireland’s largest ISP, Eircom. At the time we chatted with Paul Bradley, the Head of Communications at Eircom, about the situation. He told us that UPC was due in court in June to fight against the record labels, citing the lack of any legal basis for the requirements. UPC was keen to fight the music industry all the way.

Today’s success is a major breakthrough for anyone concerned with moves towards identifying and exposing internet users – an area that raises a plethora of privacy concerns. It’s a win, despite claims from labels and ISPs that identification of users will not be used to launch separate lawsuits against individual people.

All is not necessarily bright in today’s decision, however, as the High Court said that the lack of legislation for these requirements in Irish law means that Ireland is technically not complying with European law. Given this and Ireland’s place within the European Union, it seems likely that the Irish Government will attempt to bridge the gap with new legislation within the next few months or years, which may see the court’s ruling overturned and UPC forced to comply with the record companies’ requirements.

Mr. Justice Peter Charleton, who made the ruling, was particularly condemnatory of piracy, having previously backed the decision by Eircom to agree to the three strikes rule. He also previously labelled piracy as a “plague” and has received flak from a number of people and organisations for what they say is a one-sided view of the problem.

“This not only undermines the [record companies’] business but ruins the ability of a generation of creative people in Ireland, and elsewhere, to establish a viable living. It is destructive of an important native industry,” Charleton said today. 

He was also keen to point out that a large proportion of UPC’s 150,000 Irish customers are illegally downloading music. While this may be common knowledge on the streets it is not clear what documentation or evidence Charleton has to substantiate the claim, given UPC’s refusal to hand over customer details.

Today’s decision will have a monumental effect in Ireland as many of the smaller ISPs have been eagerly awaiting the news to see if they will also fight the record companies. O2 and 3 Ireland have been keeping their ears open, while Vodafone and Meteor are in talks with the record companies, talks which may now be hampered by UPC’s victory.

Indeed, the ruling may have an impact on Eircom’s compliance with the record companies as well.

Eircom was brought to court in 2008 by the IRMA, but it decided to settle out of court with the introduction of the graduated warning system. With no legal basis for the requirement, however, it may be willing to abandon this and try its luck with the courts, as the prospect of disconnection has not gone over well with its customers, who may jump ship to UPC if they know there’s no risk of that happening there.

“UPC has repeatedly stressed that it does not condone piracy and has always taken a strong stance against illegal activity on its network,” a spokesperson for the company said, also stating that UPC would do what it could do address the record companies’ concerns without resorting to identification and disconnection of its users.