The now-defunct Prenda Law firm became notorious for taking alleged BitTorrent pirates to court.
These copyright lawsuits were not illegal in themselves, but Prenda became a criminal enterprise when it lied to courts and trapped people by uploading self-made adult content on The Pirate Bay. They were effectively running a honeypot scheme.
The matter landed on the desk of the FBI and with help from The Pirate Bay, eventually resulted in two criminal convictions. Last summer, Prenda lawyer John Steele was sentenced to five years in prison, and his colleague Paul Hansmeier received a 14-year sentence.
The different terms in part reflect the lawyers’ cooperation with the authorities. Steele was remorseful and admitted guilt while Hansmeier fought back, something he continues to do to this day.
Rebooting the Pirate Honeypot
Fighting for freedom is not the only thing Hansmeier does, he hasn’t completely given up the honeypot scheme either. In fact, it appears that those two issues appear to go hand in hand.
As we revealed earlier this year the disbarred attorney intended to reboot his pirate chasing efforts from prison. This wasn’t merely an idea either as more recent court documents show that the honeypot is already active.
In a ‘pro se’ complaint that was originally filed at the Hennepin County District Court in Minnesota, Hansmeier lists a “John Doe” defendant. The case, which has since been moved to a federal court, reveals that this Doe defendant is a user of the adult torrent site Bootytape.com.
Instead of concealing his own involvement, Hansmeier is now an open book. He states that he is the copyright holder and that an investigator helped him to share his video on the adult-oriented torrent site Bootytape.com.
“Hansmeier is the owner by assignment of the copyright in a short video (the ‘Video’). Hansmeier asked an investigator to publish the Video on the Internet. The investigator published the video on the Internet via the website: Bootytape.com.”
After uploading the torrent file, the honeypot was in place and it didn’t take long before someone, the John Doe, took the bait.
“On June 24, 2020, John Doe, acting via Internet Protocol Address 126.96.36.199, logged onto the website, browsed the website until he found the Video and used specialized software to access the investigator’s computer and make a copy of the Video for himself,” the complaint reads.
Thus far this reads like an ordinary copyright troll lawsuit but this case is different. Listed alongside the John Doe are several federal defendants, including Erica MacDonald, the acting US Attorney for the District of Minnesota.
Hansmeier Fears Federal Wrath
Instead of going directly after the alleged pirate, Hansmeier first wants the court to ensure that he’s not breaking the law. In other words, he intends to sue the Doe defendant but is being held back by the fear of another criminal prosecution.
“Hansmeier is chilled and prohibited from doing so by the credible threat of jeopardy he faces under the federal mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion statutes,” the complaint reads.
This isn’t the first time that this angle has been brought up. A few months ago Hansmeier targeted U.S. Attorney General William Barr in a similar case in the district of Columbia. However, at the time the honeypot hadn’t started yet.
That case was eventually dismissed after a few weeks with the court concluding that the Attorney General has absolute discretion in deciding whether to investigate claims for possible criminal or civil prosecution.
In the present lawsuit, Hansmeier again asks the court to rule that his planned legal action won’t get him in trouble again. In addition, he requests an order that prevents the federal defendants, including US Attorney MacDonald, from enforcing or threatening to enforce the criminal mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion statutes.
Pirate Honeypot as a Defense
Without going too deeply into the legal arguments, Hansmeier appears to be using the honeypot and this lawsuit to help his appeal. He basically wants to show that the honeypot scheme they ran earlier wasn’t all that bad.
To achieve this goal, he also filed another case claiming that he intends to go after the Lookers Gentlemen’s Club for discriminating against people with disabilities. In this matter, he will encourage people with disabilities to obtain settlements from the club. Just like Hansmeier obtained settlements from alleged pirates.
United States Attorney Erica MacDonald responded to the two cases, asking the court to dismiss the claims. She described Hansmeier’s attempt as “artful pleading” but wants the cases thrown out.
US Attorney Wants Case Dismissed
Among other things, MacDonald stresses that Hansmeier’s “plans” don’t raise any issues which the court should decide over at this stage. The cases are not identical to the Prenda matter, far from it.
In fact, Hansmeier himself emphasizes that his new ‘honeypot’ scheme is different as the court is aware of it from the start.
“In other words, Hansmeier proposes a new strategy to pursue copyright and CFAA claims against John Doe than that for which he was prosecuted, and he offers nothing whatsoever to support a conclusion that there exists a credible rather than a hypothetical risk of prosecution in connection with this new strategy,” MacDonald writes.
“Hansmeier fails to plead facts that there is a credible threat of future prosecution or civil enforcement for the ‘planned’ or ‘anticipated’ activities he describes in his complaints.”
In addition, Hansmeier’s attempts to attack his own conviction through civil lawsuits are barred by the Heck doctrine, MacDonald argues.
“Hansmeier’s latest effort is exactly what the Heck doctrine proscribes: a collateral attack on a conviction through the vehicle of a civil suit. For this additional reason, the constitutional claims should be dismissed.”
It is now up to the court to decide if Hansmeier has a valid case or not. Whatever the outcome, we don’t expect that his legal endeavors will stop. And yes, the people at Bootytape are on notice.
A copy of the motion to dismiss, submitted by United States Attorney Erica MacDonald is available here (pdf)