Is a Fair P2P Trial Possible?


There has been a lot of court cases in the last week or two involving P2P, but there is something to be pondered, “Is a fair trial even possible?” Given the disparity between the sides in these sorts of cases, the resources, and the history, is the result a foregone conclusion before it's even started?

riaa scalesDavid and Goliath metaphors are often thrown around, as an example of the little guy fighting back, and nowhere is this more appropriate than in copyright litigation, especially those cases centering around p2p. On one side, you have the defendant, who often has no resources at all, and on the other, the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. In such cases, the law should win out, but given such a drastic mismatch, is a fair trial even possible?

There are two main areas to look at, one is within a court case, the other is outside the courtroom, and away from specific cases in general. First we’ll look at inside the courtroom, and we’ll look at more general issues in part 2 of this article.

The litigation that takes place in cases such as this, is a far cry from those typified in LA Law or Boston Legal. In those shows, the lawyers are the heroes, and to have the stars of the show using the sort of tactics used in these cases would have viewers reaching for the remotes. As was covered last summer, the actual process is riddled with abusive practices, one of the key ones being that the first most defendants hear about it, is when they’ve effectively already been sued once (as a John Doe), and lost (because of ex parte discovery), and the industry lawyers are sending threatening letters directly to people, telling them to pay up or else. Of course, it’s not just in the US this happens, it’s happened a lot in the UK with Davenport Lyons and ACS:Law.

Now, we mentioned resources, and if you have not caved in to a demand to accept guilt and pay up, then resources are essential. As a defendant in a civil case, you have to defend yourself from accusations. If you don’t show up, you lose – this is apparently what happened with Ms. Barwinska. Now, they’re under no obligation to actually file a lawsuit, but can continue to threaten to do so pretty much until any applicable statute of limitations has expired, which can be years. In all that time they can continue to threaten, and so legal counsel might have to be retained, to respond, and failure to respond can be viewed negatively in some courts.

If it actually comes to a court case, then, it can get worse. Depositions, expert witnesses and paralegals for research all cost money, again money the plaintiff has, and the defendant often doesn’t. This was why the expert witness fund was set up and one reason the defense in the two Thomas trials were light on testimony. In the Tenenbaum case, defense expert witnesses were rejected, including Dr Johan Pouwelse, who has published on Kazaa and conducted the largest (2-years!) measurement of Bittorrent. He told TorrentFreak that it was “amazing how the plaintiffs in this case where allowed to let 3 record executives complain for hours and not let any professor take the stand in favour of Joel.”

Of course, at the end of the day it comes down to the jury. And often it ends up being down to how well an analogy can be made that describes the situation in a way that defines the lawyers position in the way that the jury can understand. The problem is any such analogy will be critically flawed, as it’s a technical issue, and anyone with knowledge of P2P systems, even as a user, tends to be rejected as a juror ‘for cause’. Thus the people left are generally technological novices, that believe the analogies to be accurate, or have an overestimation of the accuracy of the evidence (as seems to be a trend with ‘forensic evidence’ in cases these days). That’s how you have someone who has never used a computer saying they know someone’s lying about a technologically involved subject, as happened in the first Thomas case. Outside information (covered in part 2) only exacerbates that.

With all these things against a defendant, can there ever be a fair P2P trial?

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