Ordinarily, serving a subpoena to identify an anonymous person on the internet requires first filing a lawsuit. In fact, we have published several posts about using subpoenas to identify unknown authors of internet defamation and have explained that the first step in the process is filing a complaint against the unknown poster.
There is, however, a procedure pertaining to copyright law, in which an alleged infringer can potentially be identified without the filing of a lawsuit and without a judge’s signature: the DMCA subpoena.
Digital Millennium Copyright
The DMCA—short for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—is a statutory mechanism (17 U.S.C. § 512) that copyright holders can use to notify online service providers of alleged copyright infringement.
The DMCA offers “safe harbors,” limiting the liability of service providers for third parties’ copyright infringement if they remove or disable access to copyright infringement in response to DMCA takedown notices.
Service providers (defined by § 512(k)(1)) include a number of different types of entities. The elements of a proper DMCA notification are listed at §512(c)(3), and they are also spelled out in various entities’ legal/copyright policy sections (such as on the websites Ripoff Report and Glassdoor).