With worldwide box-office grosses totalling $274 million since its premiere in August of last year, The Expendables can be classified as a modest blockbuster. The film also did well on file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent, but thus far without any direct revenues. In an attempt to cash in on these unauthorized downloads, the makers of the film stood by an earlier warning and sued 6,500 BitTorrent users in the United States.
In the last 12 months filmmakers and licensees 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 downloaders, and use this information to negotiate a settlement offer ranging from a few hundred to a few thousands dollars.
This scheme was pioneered in the US by the law firm Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, aka the U.S. Copyright Group (USCG), but recently it has been replicated by several other lawyers across the country. A few days ago, USCG filed a round of new lawsuits on behalf of another major client, Nu Image, the studio behind the action flick The Expendables.
After The Hurt Locker, The Expendables is the first major film release associated with this type of legal action. It is also one of the largest mass P2P lawsuits that was ever started, with a total of 6,500 unidentified defendants (Does). All defendants are suspected of having shared The Expendables on BitTorrent in recent months.
The complaint, filed by Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver at the District Court of Columbia, further appears to be copied from previous cases. It starts off with describing how BitTorrent works, and goes on to explain how the defendants have used this technology to distribute The Expendables without permission of the copyright holder.
As with previous cases, the true purpose of the lawsuits is not to start a full trial, but to obtain the personal details of the customers who are linked to the “infringing” IP-addresses. A classic pay-up-or-else scheme, or exploiting the legal system for commercial gain as others have described the process.
There is no doubt that involvement in this type of lawsuit will lead to the creation of a negative image for the studio among the general public, but on the flip side the revenue potential is enormous. If 80 percent of all defendants pay a $2,000 settlement, the plaintiffs would earn more than $10 million, which equals 10% of the total box office grosses in the US.
And there is potential for even more revenue.
Even today, five months after a high quality copy of The Expendables became available on BitTorrent, the movie is still being downloaded by a few thousand people every day. This means that there’s enough potential to sue tens of thousands additional BitTorrent users in the future, if the courts permit it of course.
The latter is a question that is likely to be answered in the months to come. Already, law firms involved in these mass lawsuits are meeting resistance from consumer rights organisations and judges. With more cases being entered month after month, the pressure on the legal system is increasing at a rapid rate too.
In the UK, where these pay-up-or-else practices began back in 2007, legal setbacks, incompetence and pressure from the public eventually led to the fall of the most prominent anti-piracy law firms ACS:Law. With the spotlight now on the US, Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver and the other law firms that are involved better brace themselves.
BitTorrent users who receive a subpoena are advised to contact a legal representative, the EFF has some good advice to start with.