In recent years hundreds of thousands of Internet subscribers have been sued for downloading copyrighted material in the United States, but not a single case has gone to trial.
Most of the defendants are sued in bulk, with copyright holders joining hundreds or thousands of alleged copyright-infringing IP-addresses in a single complaint. The rightsholders then ask the court to grant a subpoena to identify the account holders behind the IPs, who are then approached with settlement requests of a few thousand dollars.
After an initial avalanche of mass piracy lawsuits in 2010 and 2011, federal courts in several districts ruled that these cases should be restricted to one defendant each. Last year several ISPs asked for a similar ruling in the District of Columbia, but without success.
Judge Beryl Howell ruled against the Internet providers and granted the adult movie company AF Holdings the right to obtain the personal details of more than 1000 Internet users suspected of downloading their works using BitTorrent.
The adult film studio and its controversial law firm Prenda celebrated the verdict as a huge win, since many other judges had previously rejected joining so many defendants in one lawsuit. Adding to the controversy, Judge Howell told the ISPs who joined the case that they were not doing enough to stop online piracy.
The ISPs were disappointed with the ruling and Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner and Cox filed an appeal hoping to reverse it. The case has been lingering for a few months but yesterday the ISPs filed their latest brief.
The providers argue that the request for customer information is not supported by good cause, as previous cases have shown that AF Holdings has no intention of actually serving the defendants. “In 118 multi-Doe actions filed by Plaintiff’s counsel during a two-year period, none has resulted in a defendant being named and served,” they write.
In addition, the ISPs note that the adult studio is only attempting to generate as many settlements as it can, at the lowest cost without knowing whether the defendant is actually the person who downloaded the copyrighted work.
“Plaintiff’s primary purpose in seeking the personal information for hundreds or thousands of Internet subscribers per lawsuit is to extract payments without conducting any investigation into whether the subscriber — rather than another person using the subscriber’s Internet connection — is indeed responsible for accessing Plaintiff’s film without paying for it.”
The ISPs continue by citing several similar cases in which judges ruled that joining so many defendants in one case is not allowed. If the current verdict is upheld, they fear that the District of Columbia will become a “unique venue” for copyright holders to “gain the Doe defendants’ personal information and coerce payment from them”
Finally, the ISPs mention the controversial nature of the law firm Prenda, who were recently punished in court for their mob-like tactics. Among other things they note that Prenda’s principals used The Pirate Bay as a honeypot, relied on fictitious persons as clients, and submitted fake documents in support of their lawsuits.
“In the wake of these revelations, virtually all of Prenda Law’s multi-Doe cases have been dismissed or transformed into investigations into misconduct by AF Holdings’ principals and counsel. Yet, incredibly, Plaintiff derides the ISPs for objecting ‘with an air of moral superiority’ to Plaintiff’s ongoing efforts to extract personal subscriber information from them,” the brief notes.
The ISPs tell the court that this “lack of candor” should be addressed, and they ask the judge to throw out the case, or reduce the number of defendants from 1,058 to just one.
It’s good to see that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner and Cox are attempting to protect their subscribers. Of course it’s in their own interests, but it also helps to minimize the profitability of these classic copyright troll lawsuits.