Less than a week after her investiture ceremony, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell laid down a landmark verdict that will make it easy for copyright holders to send cash demands to people they suspect of copyright infringement. Many people called the decision into doubt, and the revelation that Judge Howell previously worked as an RIAA lobbyist and as the Managing Director of a pirate-chasing outfit hints at a conflict of interest.
Last week, the freshly appointed U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell gave copyright holders carte blanche to continue their profitable settlement schemes. This verdict weakens the position of thousands of alleged BitTorrent users, some of whom may be completely innocent.
Despite opposition from ISPs and consumer rights groups who described the tactics as “extortion,” Howell decided in favor of the copyright holders. An extremely unfortunate precedent to say the least, and this is confirmed by lawyer Robert Cashman who represents several defendants in similar cases.
“I believe the judge is giving the plaintiff attorneys the benefit of the doubt on all accounts, which is unfortunate because she is turning a blind eye to the abuses defendants are suffering with threats and harassment while plaintiff attorneys attempt to scare them into a settlement,” Cashman told TorrentFreak.
The big question is why Judge Howell came to this conclusion. Although we can’t see inside her mind, looking at her career before she was appointed as a judge a few months ago may give us some insight.
Howell’s resume immediately reveals that she is no stranger to copyright law. As General Counsel of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary she helped with the drafting of several prominent intellectual property protection laws, including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Deterrence Act and the No Electronic Theft Act.
The above clearly indicates that Howell is familiar with protecting the interests of copyright holders, but there is more. Until 2009 she also held the position of Executive Managing Director and General Counsel at Stroz Friedberg, a consulting firm that specializes in the management of digital crimes.
Among other areas of expertise, Stroz Friedberg is very familiar with the technology required to hunt down file sharers. Next month the firm is hosting a lecture titled “The Power of Digital Forensics in Intellectual Property Cases” in which they explain how “specialized forensic processes” can help to find “infringing copies of protected music.”
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Judge Howell’s former employee may directly benefit from her decision to allow the mass-infringement lawsuits to continue. And that’s not all.
In recent years Stroz Friedberg has lobbied extensively in Washington on behalf of the RIAA. This consulting job earned the company more than half a million dollars. And yes, one of the leading lobbyists on record was Beryl Howell, who was paid $415,000 between 2004 and 2008.
Although judges are deemed to be objective, the above is troubling information which at the least hints at a slight bias in judgement. This is fueled by the fact that less than a week after her investiture ceremony as a judge, Howell opened the door for copyright holders to send out settlements to tens of thousands of alleged file-sharers without first having evidence against them tested in court.
As a lobbyist there was only so much Howell could do, but as a U.S. District Court Judge she can really make a difference it seems.
In layman’s terms her ruling means that copyright holders can easily request the personal details of people who have allegedly downloaded copyrighted works on BitTorrent. With this decision in hand the copyright holders have all they need. After all, the intention of these lawsuits was never to take the defendants to court, but to send them settlement letters to resolve the issue for a few thousand dollars.
Whether this represents fair practice is not for us but a judge to decide – U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell in this case.
We’re no lawyers at TorrentFreak, but if we see the information as presented above we can’t help but feel that there might be a conflict of interest here. At the least, some might consider that spending years defending the rights of major copyright holders has the potential to slightly blur one’s objectivity.