The Supreme Court on Tuesday sidestepped a dispute over whether Internet providers can be forced to identify subscribers illegally swapping music and movies online.
The subject, however, may be back at the court soon.
The Bush administration agrees with recording and movie companies which want to use a 1998 law to get information about Internet users, but the administration also had encouraged the Supreme Court to wait to settle the issue.
The recording industry had sought court intervention now, arguing that more than 2.6 billion music files are illegally downloaded each month and that the law is needed to identify culprits.
The copyright law was written before file-swapping was common, and an appeals court said it could not be used to get information about people who share copyrighted files.
"That is crippling the private copyright enforcement that Congress envisioned as a bulwark against Internet lawlessness, and allowing Internet piracy to metastasize," justices were told in a filing by Washington attorney Donald Verrilli, who represents the Recording Industry Association of America (search).
"Copyright owners cannot fight back unless they know who the infringers are," he said.
Lawyers for Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ), which tried to keep private names and addresses of subscribers, disputed that that the industry has been deterred in going after people who trade copyrighted works by computer.
More than 3,000 alleged infringers have been sued since the appeals court's decision 10 months ago, Verizon lawyer John Thorne said. Those civil suits identify defendants as "John Doe," then seek court permission to get their names.
He warned justices that courts could be swamped with tens of thousands of disputed subpoena enforcement proceedings if it sided with the recording industry.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (search) compels Internet providers to turn over the names of people suspected of operating pirate Web sites upon subpoena from any federal court clerk's office.
The appeals court had said it was up to Congress, not courts, to expand the 1998 law to cover popular file-sharing networks.
Movie studios and music labels have been aggressively pursuing copyright infringers. Last week, they filed a Supreme Court appeal that seeks to hold two Internet file-sharing services — Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc. — responsible for their customers' online swapping of copyrighted songs and movies.
Other cases are pending in lower courts that could give the Supreme Court an opportunity to look at the copyright law, including a dispute involving St. Louis-based cable provider Charter Communications (CHTR).
The cases are Verizon Internet Services v. Recording Industry Association of America, 03-1722, and Recording Industry Association of America v. Verizon Internet Services, 03-1579.