The mass-BitTorrent lawsuits that are sweeping the United States are in a heap of trouble. After a Florida judge ruled that an IP-address is not a person, a Californian colleague has gone even further in protecting the First Amendment rights of BitTorrent users. The judge in question points out that geolocation tools are far from accurate and that it’s therefore uncertain that his court has jurisdiction over cases involving alleged BitTorrent pirates. As a result, 15 of these mass-BitTorrent lawsuits were dismissed.
In recent years more than a quarter million people have been accused of sharing copyrighted works in the United States.
Copyright holders generally sue dozens, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of people at once, hoping to extract cash settlements from the alleged downloaders. The evidence they present to the court is usually an IP-address and a timestamp marking when the alleged infringement took place.
Early 2010, when these mass-lawsuits began, copyright holders targeted IP-addresses from all across the US in single lawsuits. This led some judges to dismiss cases because their courts have no jurisdiction over people who live elsewhere.
As a result, copyright holders switched to a new tactic. Before filing a suit they ran their database of infringing IP-addresses through so-called “geolocation” services so they could argue that the defendants most likely reside in the district where they were being sued.
This worked well for a while, but a new ruling by California District Court Judge Dean Pregerson puts an end to this new approach, killing 15 lawsuits in the process.
According to Pregerson, alleged BitTorrent pirates are protected by the First Amendment as they are “engaging in the exercise of speech, albeit to a limited extent.” Therefore, the copyright holder’s request to identify anonymous internet users has to meet certain criteria.
One of the requirements is that it’s absolutely clear that the accused are residents of the region where the court has jurisdiction, but according to Judge Pregerson it is not sufficient to use the results from a “geolocation” tool to prove it.
In a previous order the copyright holder – movie company Celestial Inc. – was asked to convince the court of the accuracy of these tools. In a reply Celestial referred to a website which contained some general claims as well as a quote from the company that collected the evidence, but it wasn’t enough.
“Based on Plaintiff’s own reliability claims, there may still be a 20 to 50 percent chance that this court lacks jurisdiction,” Judge Pregerson writes in his order.
The Judge adds that even if there is a slight chance that these tools are wrong, he simply can’t sign off on the subpoena request.
“Even if the most advanced geolocation tools were simply too unreliable to adequately establish jurisdiction, the court could not set aside constitutional concerns in favor of Plaintiff’s desire to subpoena the Doe Defendants’ identifying information.”
“Again, it is the First Amendment that requires courts to ensure complaints like this one would at least survive a motion to dismiss, before the court authorizes early discovery to identify anonymous internet users.”
The IP-address lookups and additional information provided by Celestial Inc. can’t guarantee that the defendants do indeed reside in California, and Judge Pregerson therefore dismissed the 15 mass-BitTorrent lawsuits the company filed at his court.
It also means the end of mass-BitTorrent lawsuits in the Californian court, as no geolocation tool is 100% accurate.
While the ruling doesn’t mean the end of all mass-BitTorrent lawsuits in the US just yet, it appears that there’s a growing opposition from judges against these practices.
For example, two weeks ago we reported on a related ruling in which a Florida judge dismissed several cases because an IP-address doesn’t identify a person. In other words, even when a court has jurisdiction, the copyright holder can not prove that the account holder connected to the IP-address is the person who shared the copyrighted file.
If other judges adopt either of the rulings above, it means the end of mass-BitTorrent lawsuits as we know them.