The recording industry can't force Internet providers to identify music downloaders, a federal appeals court said Friday in a major decision shielding online privacy while undercutting the industry's anti-piracy campaign.

The ruling does not legalize distributing copyrighted songs over the Internet, and people who download songs still could face lawsuits, but it will greatly increase the cost and effort for the Washington-based Recording Industry Association of America to track such activity and sue those who are swapping music online.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a trial judge's decision to enforce copyright subpoenas, one of the most effective tools used by the recording industry. The subpoena power was established by a law passed before the explosive growth of swapping music online.

''It's an incredible ruling, a blow for the little guy,'' said Bob Barnes, a grandfather in Fresno, Calif., who was targeted by one of the earliest subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America but isn't among the hundreds who have been sued so far.

The appeals court said the 1998 copyright law doesn't cover popular file-sharing networks used by tens of millions of Americans to download songs. The law ''betrays no awareness whatsoever that Internet users might be able directly to exchange files containing copyrighted works,'' the court wrote.

The judges sympathized with the recording industry, which has cited declining profits, noting that ''stakes are large.'' But they said it was not the role of courts to rewrite the 1998 law, ''no matter how damaging'' the practice of swapping has become to the music industry or threatens to become to the motion picture and software industries.

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