In countries across Europe and in the United States, copyright holders have targeted hundreds of thousands of Internet users said to have shared their content online without permission.
Often referred to as copyright trolls, these companies place themselves in file-sharing networks and masquerade as regular users, but instead they’re collecting evidence of infringement. This evidence is then used to obtain the identities of alleged file-sharers in order to obtain cash settlements from them. It’s a messy and controversial game.
One of the hardest troll-hit countries is Germany but in the last few days came a surprise to shock even the most experienced lawyers in the field. Seemingly out of nowhere, many thousands of Internet users received letters from German lawfirm U & C apparently acting on behalf of a Swiss company called The Archive AG.
Up to a point their claims appear to be fairly standard stuff, unsurprisingly involving adult content with titles including Dream Trip, Hot Stories, Amanda’s Secrets, Miriam’s Adventures and Glamour Showgirls. For the user’s apparent transgressions The Archive AG asks for a payment of 149.50 euros for lawyer fees, 15.50 euros in damages and sundry other costs amounting to 250 euros. Some individuals are reporting receiving multiple demands.
However, the real shocker becomes apparent when one discovers where the alleged infringements are said to have taken place. Not a torrent site or other venue where user IP addresses are publicly available but on streaming video site RedTube, the 105th most popular site in the world. While RedTube specializes in adult content, its functionality is not dissimilar to that of YouTube.
The scale of this settlement operation becomes apparent when reading reports from Wilde Beuger Solmecke, a law firm that specializes in defending Internet users from the threats of copyright trolls.
“We assume that over 10,000 warning letters have been sent by the firm U + C,” the lawfirm explain, adding that at least 1,000 individuals had already called their offices for advice.
So how did the lawfirm acquire the identities of so many individuals? That question has become the subject of many theories, from IP address-grabbing adverts to malware, to a huge lawsuit forcing RedTube to comply.
That last theory was being pursued yesterday by German publication Die Welt, who ran a report claiming that the Cologne Regional Court had been involved in a request to hand over the data of individuals who had simply viewed the videos in question. One theory is that the Court may have mistaken RedTube for some kind of P2P file-sharing network where infringers also upload.
But even that theory was being questioned by RedTube themselves last evening. Speaking with XBiz, RedTube denied that anything had been handed over.
“Our security measures and user privacy has always been a top priority for RedTube,” said RedTube Vice President Alex Taylor.
“RedTube pursues stringent privacy requirements and maintains the highest industry standards of privacy protection to secure not only their assets and properties, but to provide comprehensive protection of their customers’ data when visiting a RedTube-owned site.”
In any event, lawyer Christian Solmecke feels that if the claims are indeed against users that have merely streamed content, no offense has been committed.
“From our perspective, users have committed no crime here. Unlike the case involving [illegal streaming portal] Kino.to, the films published on RedTube are not manifestly unlawful (in the sense of copyright),” Solmecke said.
“Even so, when watching the films on your own computer this is a legal private copy in accordance with copyright law. Add to that the only copy ever made here is a few seconds of buffering in volatile buffer memory of the computer. Such copies are in my opinion in accordance with copyright law.”
Officials at RedTube-owner MindGeek say that an “in-depth investigation” is now underway into the “serious allegations that have surfaced in the media recently.” Given the sheer numbers of cash settlements that have been sent out and the nature of the alleged offenses, this matter is certainly not over yet.
If this does indeed turn out to be a cut and dried case against Internet users who have merely viewed streaming content, the fear is that while this affects RedTube users today it could easily affect YouTube viewers tomorrow. Definitely one to watch.