Filmmakers Request Identities of Reddit Users to Aid Piracy Lawsuit

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Filmmakers have obtained a subpoena to reveal the identities of Redditors who commented on piracy-related topics. The comments can provide relevant evidence in support of a repeat infringer lawsuit against ISP RCN, the companies argue. Reddit disagrees and frames the effort as a fishing expedition that is at odds with the right to anonymous speech.

redditUnder U.S. copyright law, Internet providers must terminate the accounts of repeat infringers “in appropriate circumstances.”

Many ISPs have been reluctant to take such drastic measures, which triggered a wave of copyright infringement lawsuits in recent years.

Internet provider RCN is among the targeted providers. In 2021, the company was sued by several film companies, including the makers of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, London Has Fallen, and Hellboy.

The movie companies alleged that RCN wasn’t doing enough to stop subscribers from pirating on its network. Instead of terminating the accounts of persistent pirates, the Internet provider looked away, they argued.

The stakes in these liability lawsuits are high. Internet providers face damages claims reaching hundreds of millions of dollars, while tens of thousands of Internet subscribers are at risk of having their accounts terminated.

Reddit Users as Evidence

RCN denied most of the allegations and asked the New Jersey federal court to dismiss the case. That effort failed last October and the matter is now proceeding, with both parties gathering evidence.

The filmmakers have previously shown that they don’t shy away from relying on evidence from unrelated third parties. This includes Redditors who have semi-anonymously shared their thoughts on piracy warnings and repeat infringer policies from Internet providers.

In the RCN case, this is no different. Attorney Kerry Culpepper discovered several Reddit discussions with potentially relevant comments. Some Reddit users specifically mention RCN. Others refer to ISPs in more general terms but could refer to RCN or other brands of the Astound conglomerate.

To gather more details, the filmmakers would like to know who these commenters are. To obtain their identities, they obtained a subpoena compelling Reddit to share basic account information, including IP-address logs for ‘ben125125’, ‘SquattingCroat’, “Griffdog21′, ‘aromaticbotanist’, ‘ChikaraFan’, ‘compypaq’, ‘dotsamantha’, ‘ilikepie96mng’ and ‘matt3324’.”

reddit subpoena

Reddit Objects

Reddit is not pleased with the request. On January 17, the company informed the filmmakers that it would alert the subscribers, allowing them to contest the subpoena. In addition, Reddit suggested that handing over personal details could violate users’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech (see update at the bottom).

Roughly two weeks later, none of the affected users had filed an objection in court. However, Reddit decided to share information about “ben125125”, while protecting the other users.

ben reddit

As shown above, “ben125125” responded to a thread about piracy warnings and specifically mentioned RCN. That wasn’t as obvious in the other comments and Reddit feels that disclosing their identities goes too far.

“Reddit maintains its objections to the subpoena’s remaining requests for identifying information associated with the eight additional accounts listed in the subpoena,” Reddit’s attorneys informed the filmmakers in an email.

“Reddit has reviewed the examples provided by plaintiffs and continues to believe the requests for identifying information associated with the additional eight accounts are more in the nature of a fishing expedition and are neither relevant nor permissible under the First Amendment.”

reddit letter

Among other things, Reddit stresses that some of the comments are well beyond the three-year statute of limitations. In fact, one comment was posted 13 years ago. In addition, the comments don’t all reference RCN, the provider at the heart of the dispute.

Filmmakers Ask Court to Step In

The rightsholders see things differently. This week they asked a California court to compel Reddit to hand over the requested details and IP-address logs, as these are highly relevant. Disclosing the information is proportional to the needs of the case, they argue.

The comments can provide evidence that RCN can control the conduct of subscribers and didn’t have a proper repeat infringer policy, with the latter acting as a draw to potential subscribers.

fairly lax

This includes a comment from the user ChikaraFan about RCN’s alleged “lax” policy for dealing with repeat infringers, which the filmmakers plan to use as evidence.

“Plaintiffs wish to use ChikaraFan’s statement as evidence of and that this ‘fairly lax’ policy was a draw for becoming a customer.

“Even though the statement was made eight years ago, Plaintiffs can use the information requested in the subpoena to contact ChikaraFan and authenticate her/his post to obtain evidence to support their claims.”

Relevant and Proportional

Other posts are also relevant and proportional, the rightsholders argue. These include several comments suggesting that ISPs don’t have very strict repeat infringer policies, without mentioning the names of the providers.

The filmmakers believe that these can be very useful if they are about RCN or one of the other Internet provider brands operated under parent company Astound.

The motion to compel also counters Reddit’s First Amendment right to anonymous speech argument, noting that none of the users filed an official protest after being notified.

The Reddit users apparently don’t have to fear repercussions themselves, as the film companies stress that they’re not interested in pursuing legal action or financial claims against them.

“Rather, Plaintiffs just wish to discuss the comments the subscribers made and use their comments as evidence that RCN monitors and controls the conduct of its subscribers, RCN has no meaningful policy for terminating repeat infringers and this lax or no policy was a draw for using RCN’s service,” they write.

The matter is now with the court, which must decide whether Reddit can be compelled to identify the affected users. The list no longer includes ‘dotsamantha’ who was dropped from the request. Reddit, meanwhile, may have to say more on the matter.

Whatever it Takes

If anything, the above shows that film companies are willing to dig deep to prove a point. This can drag relatively anonymous Reddit users into a lawsuit they probably never even heard about.

The issue isn’t limited to Reddit either; rightsholders can pull comments from Twitter and other social media platforms.

Whether this unconventional tactic will yield results has yet to be seen. Based on recent history, it is clear that the filmmakers and their lead attorney don’t give up easily.

In a separate case last year, they won a $14 million copyright judgment against LiquidVPN. Since then, the companies have pulled out all the stops to get their money.

Just last month, the filmmakers obtained a worldwide asset restraining order (pdf) that prohibits the former operators of the defunct VPN provider from disposing or transferring valuable assets. The same case also triggered a battle over a $300,000 yacht that was left abandoned after the verdict.

The RCN case and Reddit dispute are more straightforward but the tactics deployed show that the filmmakers are willing to do whatever it takes, using all legal means at their disposal.

A copy of the motion to compel Reddit to comply with the subpoena, as filed at the California court this week, is available here (pdf)

Update: To clarify, the first amendment rights generally protect people against the actions of the Government or state actions.


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