LOS ANGELES (CN) - An anonymous website commenter need not be identified for the copyright battle between a record label and file-sharing service Grooveshark, a California appeals court ruled.
Universal Music Group has been fighting
Grooveshark parent Escape Media in New York since 2010, claiming the latter reproduced and distributed user-uploaded sound recordings.
Escape argues that federal copyright law permits its business practices, but Digital Music News reported the following year in its online newsletter that another music artist not affiliated with UMG had also come forward and accused Escape Media of copyright infringement.
The article prompted dozens of comments, including two from a reader identified only as "Visitor." The poster claimed to be an Escape employee who routinely received orders from Escape's brass to upload copyrighted material to the servers.
In a second posting the next day, Visitor said Escape administrators also told employees to ignore complaints from artists and record labels. Visitor added that, even when Escape pretended to remove the music after a complaint, the files were never really deleted and typically restored later.
Escape subpoenaed Digital Music News - which is not a party in the UMG action - to reveal Visitor's identity in 2012. Digital objected to the subpoena, adding that any potential information it had collected about Visitor had been deleted and overwritten.
When Escape took its case to a Los Angeles County courtroom, a judge found that some fragmented data about Visitor's identity might still exist on Digital's servers.
Saying Escape had established a basic case that Visitor's comments were libelous and unprotected by the First Amendment, the court ordered Digital to comply with the subpoena.
California's Second Appellate District said Wednesday that the order must be vacated.
Escape failed to show on a basic level how knowing Visitor's identity will bolster its defense against UMG, the 16-page ruling states.
"Even if Escape were able to show Visitor lacked evidence to support his or her claims - for example by showing Visitor was not in fact an Escape employee or was motivated by mischief or spite - such a showing would have no tendency in reason to prove UMG lacked evidence supporting its allegations," Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney wrote for a three-member panel. "If Escape proposes to demonstrate affirmatively that its practices are not as Visitor described, Visitor's identity would be unnecessary to such a proof. In either case, Visitor's identity has no tendency in reason to prove or disprove any disputed fact of consequence to the action, and is not reasonably calculated to lead to such proof."
Furthermore, Visitor's privacy interest as guaranteed by the California Constitution outweighs Escape's need for Visitor's name, according to the ruling.
"That interest begins with Visitor's need for a venue from which to be heard without fear of interference or suppression," Chaney wrote. "Visitor's anonymity also frees him or her from fear of retaliation, an even more compelling interest if Visitor truly is an Escape employee, as represented, because exposure could endanger not only his or her privacy but also livelihood.
"On the other hand, Escape's need for the discovery is practically nonexistent," Chaney continued. "If Visitor is not an Escape employee, his or her opinion about Grooveshark not only lacks foundation but would be undermined by Visitor's misrepresentation concerning employment, and would therefore be of little or no probative value in this or any litigation."
Visitor's identity is not "essential to a fair resolution of the UMG lawsuit," Chaney added. "We will not lightly lend the subpoena power of the courts to prove, in essence, that 'Someone Is Wrong on the Internet.'"
California's Civil Discovery Act governs this subpoena even though it was sought under the Interstate and International Depositions and Discovery Act for use in New York, according to the ruling.