Judges Refuse to Unmask Alleged Pirates, Citing Privacy Concerns

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One of the most active piracy litigants in the US is facing setback in the Minnesota District Court. Several subpoena requests from Strike 3 Holdings were denied, with magistrate judges ruling that the privacy of alleged BitTorrent pirates trumps the rights of the adult filmmakers.

Since the turn of the last decade, numerous people have been sued for illegal file-sharing in US courts.

These cases are generally filed by a small group of rightsholders and this year “Strike 3 Holdings” has proven itself to be one of the most active litigants.

The company, which distributes its works through various adult websites, has filed cases against hundreds of alleged defendants over the past several months.

As is common in these cases, the copyright holder only knows the defendant by an IP-address. It then asks the courts to grant a subpoena, allowing it to ask Internet providers for the personal details of the alleged offenders, so it can send a settlement request.

In most district courts this established process is usually just a matter of filing boilerplate paperwork but in Minnesota, this didn’t go as easily as Strike 3 had expected.

Late last month, Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel denied such a discovery motion. As a result, Strike 3 is not allowed to ask the ISP, Comcast in this case, for the personal details of the account holder associated with the IP-address.

According to Judge Noel, these cases present a conflict between the copyright protections of the DMCA on the one hand and the privacy rights of the public as set out in the Communications Act. Here, the scale tips in the favour of the latter.

“This Court concludes that the conflict between the statutes, DMCA and the Communications Act, compels it to deny Plaintiff’s instant ex parte motion,” Judge Noel wrote.

This order didn’t go unnoticed. Last week Magistrate Judge David Schultz cited the ruling in two similar cases, also filed by Strike 3. Again, the subpoena requests were denied to secure the privacy of the alleged BitTorrent pirates.

“From this Court’s perspective there are obvious tensions between DMCA, the Communications Act, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45,” Schultz’s orders read.

“The Court is not unsympathetic to Plaintiff’s need to discover the actual identity of the infringer of its copyright; however, the discovery sought by Plaintiff through a Rule 45 subpoena directly collides with federal privacy protections.”

In the orders, which are all nearly identical, the magistrate judges note that unless there’s a binding precedent from the Eighth Circuit or further guidance from Congress, they have no other option than to deny these discovery requests.

While this is good news for the defendants in these cases, copyright troll watcher ‘FCT’ notes that it’s too early to celebrate. Since issuing these subpoenas is a well-established procedure, the district judge or an appeal court may reverse the denials.

This lack of agreement is also apparent from another ruling that came in right before the weekend, where another Minnesota Magistrate Judge granted a similar subpoena request from Strike 3, witch the caveat that the defendant should be able to proceed anonymously.

That said, if the orders from Magistrate Judges Noel and Schultz stand, it’s a clear win for the defendants in these cases. While it won’t stop Strike 3 from continuing it’s business, at least a few people are spared from receiving settlement demands in the mail.

The denials are available here (pdf 1,2,3) and the order granting the subpoena can be found here (pdf).

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