Judge Splits $750 Piracy Penalty Between BitTorrent Peers

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A District Court judge in Seattle has taken a novel approach in a series of default judgments targeting alleged BitTorrent pirates. Since the defendants are accused of sharing files in the same swarm, they should also share the penalty among each other, the judge argues. According to the order, these cases are not intended to provide a windfall to filmmakers.

Many Hollywood insiders see online piracy as a major threat, but only very few are willing to target alleged file-sharers with lawsuits.

LHF Productions, one of the companies behind the blockbuster “London Has Fallen,” has no problem crossing this line. Since the first pirated copies of the film appeared online last year, the company has been suing alleged downloaders in multiple courts.

As is usual in these cases, defendants get the option to sign a quick settlement to resolve the matter or defend their case in court. Those who ignore the lawsuits completely face a default judgment, which can turn out to be quite expensive depending on the Judge.

This week, Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled over a series of LHF cases at the Seattle District Court. The movie company requested default judgments against 28 defendants in five cases, demanding $2,500 from each defendant.

When the accused downloaders don’t defend themselves, judges nearly always rule in the plaintiff’s favor, which is also true for these cases. However, Judge Martinez decided not to award the requested penalties in full.

The filmmaker had argued that $2,500, and even more in attorney’s fees and costs, is a rather modest request. However, in his order this week the Judge sees things differently.

“The Court also acknowledges that the amount at stake is not, as LHF contends, modest – LHF seeks enhanced statutory damages in the amount of $2,500 along with $2,605.50 in attorneys’ fees, and amounts ranging between $90 and $150 in costs, for each named Defendant in this matter,” he writes (pdf).

Instead, the Judge places the damages amount at the statutory minimum, which is $750.

Even more interesting, and the first time we’ve seen this happening, is that the penalty will be split among the swarm members in each case. The filmmakers alleged that the defendants were part of the same swarm, so they are all liable for the same infringement, Judge Martinez argues.

“Because the named Defendants in this action were alleged to have conspired with one another to infringe the same digital copy of LHF’s motion picture, the Court will award the sum of $750 for Defendants’ infringement of the same digital copy of London Has Fallen.”

“Each of the Defendants is jointly and severally liable for this amount,” Judge Martinez adds in his order.

This means that in one of the cases, where there are eight defaulted defendants, each has to pay just over $93 in damages.

As for the lowered damages amount itself, the Judge clarifies that these type of cases are not intended to result in large profits. Especially not, when the rightsholders have made little effort to prove actual damage or to track down the original sharer.

“The Court is not persuaded. Statutory damages are not intended to serve as a windfall to plaintiffs, and enhanced statutory damages are not warranted where plaintiffs do not even try to demonstrate actual damages.”

In addition to limiting the penalty, the Judge also reduced the requested attorney’s fees. Since the case was mostly based on identical complaints and motions, the court had trouble believing that the law firm spent hundreds of hours in preparation.

Instead, the court granted only $550 in attorney’s fees per defendant. This means that the default defendants will have to pay a few hundred dollars each, instead of the $5,000 plus the filmmakers wanted.

According to the Fight Copyright Trolls blog, which first published details of the unusual order, splitting the awards between the defendants in the same swarm could turn out to be a “fatal blow” to these type of lawsuits.

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