The US Copyright Group (USCG) – a front for the Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver lawfirm – has made dozens of headlines this year after its entrance into the pay-up-or-else file-sharing revenue generation market. They track alleged file-sharers in the U.S. on BitTorrent and threaten legal action against them but, as is common with these schemes around Europe, all people have to do is pay up a settlement fee and the whole thing can be made to go away.
As pioneered by lawyers such Davenport Lyons and ACS:Law in the UK, USCG aim to obtain the real identities of those behind the IP addresses they have collected in the cheapest possible manner. Filing separate lawsuits against each individual would prove prohibitively expensive and would mean that there would be little profit to be made. Instead they put them all together in a single lawsuit.
In court filings the EFF, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined forces to attack the strategy, filing an amicus brief in three cases and arguing how these lawsuits “flout the legal safeguards that protect individuals’ rights” and asking that all but one of the ‘John Doe’ defendants should be removed from the lawsuits.
In response, a judge asked USCG to explain why she shouldn’t do just that.
In brief, USCG’s response was that all of the defendants are linked since they all used BitTorrent to acquire/share the file in question, and by its very nature they will all be sharing data with each other. While on the surface their argument might seem solid, there are plenty of holes.
Tomorrow, Court 2 of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia will hear a submission from the EFF where it will argue for the breaking up of these lawsuits which they say improperly targets thousands of BitTorrent users by wrongfully denying them “fair access to individual justice”.
Countering the assertion by USCG that by virtue of the fact that all the defendants used BitTorrent they must therefore be linked, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry will argue that the company has not provided enough evidence to prove that.
“The stakes are high for anyone identified in USCG’s slipshod cases,” writes the EFF. “USCG’s strategy appears to be to threaten a judgment of up to $150,000 per downloaded movie — the maximum penalty allowable by law in copyright suits and a very unlikely judgment in cases arising from a single, noncommercial infringement — in order to pressure the alleged infringers to settle quickly for $1,500 – $2,500 per person.”
In the United States and the United Kingdom alike, it is the ability for lawyers to cheaply bundle targets together in one convenient lawsuit that provides the lifeblood to these schemes. Once the ‘unit cost’ goes up to one person/one lawsuit, the whole enterprise becomes so expensive that it is no longer profitable. If the EFF can win this battle, it will be a significant victory.