IP-Address Is Not a Person, BitTorrent Case Judge Says

A possible landmark ruling in one of the mass-BitTorrent lawsuits in the U.S. may spell the end of the "pay-up-or-else-schemes" that have targeted over 100,000 Internet users in the last year. District Court Judge Harold Baker has denied a copyright holder the right to subpoena the ISPs of alleged copyright infringers, because an IP-address does not equal a person.

In the last year various copyright holders have sued well over 100,000 alleged file-sharers in the United States alone. The purpose of these lawsuits is to obtain the personal details of the alleged infringers, and use this information to negotiate a settlement offer ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Lawyers, the public and consumer advocacy groups have compared these practices to extortion, but nonetheless new cases are still being filed every month. This week, however, an interesting ruling was handed down by District Court Judge Harold Baker that, if adopted by other judges, may become a major roadblock for similar mass-lawsuits.

In the case VPR Internationale v. Does 1-1017, the judge denied the Canadian adult film company access to subpoena ISPs for the personal information connected to the IP-addresses of their subscribers. The reason? IP-addresses do not equal persons, and especially in ‘adult entertainment’ cases this could obstruct a ‘fair’ legal process.

Among other things Judge Baker cited a recent child porn case where the U.S. authorities raided the wrong people, because the real offenders were piggybacking on their Wi-Fi connections. Using this example, the judge claims that several of the defendants in VPR’s case may have nothing to do with the alleged offense either.

“The infringer might be the subscriber, someone in the subscriber’s household, a visitor with her laptop, a neighbor, or someone parked on the street at any given moment,” Judge Baker writes.

Although the above logic applies to all BitTorrent lawsuits that are currently ongoing, the matter becomes especially delicate when the alleged offense is sharing rather explicit adult titles.

“Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School, noted that whether you’re guilty or not, you look like a suspect. Could expedited discovery be used to wrest quick settlements, even from people who have done nothing wrong?” Judge Baker writes.

Judge Baker further notes that “the embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether the plaintiff VPR has competent evidence to prove its case.”

Baker concludes by saying that his Court is not supporting a “fishing expedition” for subscribers’ details if there is no evidence that it has jurisdiction over the defendants.

Although the ruling is definitely a setback for the copyright holders in mass-BitTorrent lawsuits, it has yet to be seen whether other judges will reach the same conclusion in future cases. If that happens, the end of this type of lawsuit in the U.S. may be near.

Texas lawyer Robert Cashman, who represents several defendants in similar lawsuits, agrees that the ruling can be a potential game changer.

“We may have just seen the order that may end all future John Doe lawsuits,” he commented in a response.

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