US government dismisses piracy case against Rojadirecta site

"We are pleased that the government decided to end this proceeding and return our client's property," said Joe Gratz, a partner at Durie Tangri. "[They have] been deprived of these domain names for 20 months now and had to engage counsel and fight about this for some time."

Internet advocacy groups, along with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), had criticized the seizure, noting that Spanish courts had previously exonerated Rojadirecta of copyright infringement. They also argued that Rojadirecta was complying with the copyright laws in the country it was operating out of.

The seizure was part of the joint "Operation in our Sites" effort led by Justice and ICE to clamp down on piracy and the rise of websites that illegally offer copyrighted movies, music and other content. Critics had claimed this operation threatened free speech on the Web and lacked due process. They also argued that it would put the United States in hot water with other countries for shutting down websites that are operating legally within their borders.

"From our point of view the flaw is as it always has been: Linking to sites on the Internet isn't copyright infringement," Gratz said. "The same way the Yellow Pages isn't liable if someone listed in the Yellow Pages is doing something wrong, a website that's linking to other sites ... isn't liable."

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, submitted the notice of voluntary dismissal on Wednesday. In a letter to U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty, the federal prosecutor didn't shed much light on the reasoning behind the decision to return Rojadirecta's domain names.

"The government respectfully submits this letter to advise the court that as a result of certain recent judicial authority involving issues germane to the above-captioned action, and in light of the particular circumstances of this litigation, the government now seeks to dismiss its amended forfeiture complaint," Bharara wrote. "The decision to seek dismissal of this case will best promote judicial economy and serve the interests of justice."

Advocacy group Public Knowledge, an opponent of the government's seizure operation, cheered the government's decision to dismiss the case.

"It is far too easy for the government to seize domain names and hold them for an extended period even when it is unable to make a sustainable case of infringement," said Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge. "The constant expansion of copyright enforcement laws has given us a system where website owners are effectively treated as guilty until proven innocent. These sorts of abuses are likely to continue until there are adequate safeguards to assure accountability."