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 crossed criminal lines 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.
Hansmeier Sues US Attorney General
This week, the convicted lawyer filed a new lawsuit at a federal court in Wisconsin. In a handwritten complaint, filed from prison, the disbarred attorney sues US Attorney General William Bar, requesting a declaratory judgment that harkens back to the honeypot scheme.
As we reported a few weeks ago, Hansmeier has plans to sue alleged BitTorrent pirates again. He obtained the copyrights to a small adult video and informed the court that he would like to upload this to pirate sites with help from an investigator, so he can track down and prosecute pirates.
In order to set this honeypot up, the former Prenda attorney wants the court to rule that his strategy is not illegal. Because it’s similar to the original scheme he ran, Hansmeier requests a declaratory judgment ruling confirming that various criminal statutes violate his first amendment rights, among other things.
US Government is Powerless Against Torrent Sites
The complaint starts by describing the economic losses caused by piracy. A lot of this harm is done by torrent sites, he writes, pointing out that the government is well aware of the problem as it shut down the popular KickassTorrent site a few years ago. While this site remains offline, it hasn’t solved the larger problem.
“Ultimately, though, the government is powerless to stop the proliferation of these websites. Whenever one website is shut down, another website just pops up in place of the old one – after all, the new website need only copy the links from the old website,” Hansmeier writes.
The convicted attorney believes that, in the long run, his own honeypot scheme is the only effective enforcement tool. The complaint describes a ‘testing strategy’ where the rightsholder uses an investigator to populate pirate sites with copyrighted material to track and prosecute pirates.
Trapping Pirates Works
“The only strategy that has been effective is the testing strategy described above,” Hansmeier argues, noting that the torrents will be posted anonymously, so users won’t know which ones are linked to the honeypot.
“Once pirates believe that links on torrent websites were posted by copyright holders as a lawsuit trap then, in Plaintiff’s personal experience, the pirates will warn each other and stop using the site. And, since it is easy and free to post links on torrent websites, new sites that pop up can easily get any inundated with testing links.”
When enough lawsuits are filed around the world, traffic to torrent sites should decrease, which results in less advertising revenue for the site’s operators. This strategy should eventually lead to the demise of torrent sites, Handmeier envisions.
“With robust testing efforts, copyright holders could very quickly make piracy websites unprofitable to operate by deterring lucrative advertising targets (Americans, Europeans and some Asians) from using the sites. Anti-piracy claims can readily be filed in most countries which were signatories to international copyright treaties.”
Hansmeier Has Started Tracking Pirates Already
Hansmeier says he already started up the scheme. An investigator recently uploaded a torrent to a popular piracy site, tracking three downloaders. He would like to prosecute them but is worried that the US Attorney General may come after him for doing so.
With the current lawsuit, the convicted attorney effectively asks the court to greenlight his strategy. Specifically, he asks for a declaration that paragraphs 1341, 1343, and 1951 of the US Criminal Code violate his First Amendment rights, the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, as well as the Constitution’s separation of powers.
Given the position Hansmeier is in, this lawsuit is likely a defensive move. While he may indeed want to prove a point by going after pirates in a similar, but more open, fashion as Prenda did. The ulterior motive is likely to get a ruling he can use to fight his own prison sentence.
A copy of Hansmeier’s complaint against US Attorney General William Barr is available here (pdf).