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Coolsat Viewers Avoid Subpoenas

A federal judge in San Jose, Calif., has rejected a move by EchoStar to identify everyone who has bought Coolsat satellite receivers, which provide free viewing of satellite channels.

Echostar has sued the receiver maker Freetech Inc. under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, charging that its FTA ("free-to-air") Coolsat receiver is primarily designed to illegally view Dish Network's encrypted satellite programming. June 25, EchoStar served 17 subpoenas to Freetech distributors seeking the identity and contact information of everyone who had bought a receiver since Jan. 1, 2003. EchoStar said it needs that information to see if Freetech was trafficking in devices primarily designed for piracy, which is illegal under DMCA.

Freetach says its receivers are designed for viewing unencrypted channels that are available legally.

But the court said such information was more than EchoStar needed.

"The fact remains that possession and use of FTA receivers are not illegal," U.S. Magistrate Richard Seeborg wrote Sept. 29, granting Freetech's motion for a protective order to stop the subpoenas. "Without modification with privacy software, FTA receivers cannot intercept encrypted programming. The requests for customer lists, therefore, could lead to the perceived harassment of legitimate users and a concomitant chilling effect on the purchase and lawful use of Freetech's FTA receivers."

In a friend-of-the-court filing, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation said DirecTV mustered similar subpoenas back in 2001 and delivered more than 170,000 letters demanding "settlements" of at least $3,500 from each customer.