Media Must Protect Dallas Buyers Club’s Innocent Victims

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Don't expect the Federal Court to protect Australians from the claws of Dallas Buyers Club's Voltage Pictures. Sure, Justice Perram will cast an eye over their initial scare letter to alleged pirates, but then the gloves will come off. While defense lawyers have their place, the only people with the ability to hold copyright trolls to account are Australia's journalists.

papersDealing with people who receive threatening letters from so-called copyright trolls can be a draining experience. On the one hand there are those who are arrogant about their offending (and that’s their prerogative) but it’s the innocent parties that make things so difficult.

For at least seven years TorrentFreak has been receiving sometimes heartbreaking emails from people who just don’t know where to turn. Most received aggressive cash demands to make supposed lawsuits go away and some were threatened with the loss of their homes if they didn’t pay up.

These are multi-million dollar corporations bullying the little man simply because they can, and it’s a horrible thing to behold.

This week, in what can only be described as a massive effort by the Australian press, dozens of outlets informed us that U.S.-based Voltage Pictures had won its case against ISPs including iiNet. This means that close to 5,000 Aussies will shortly receive letters demanding cash settlements and all the misery they entail.

Many publications did note a positive, however. In a move designed to limit Voltage’s ability to abuse the vulnerable, Justice Perram stated the following:

“Having regard to the likely identity of many account holders and their potential vulnerability to what may appear to be abusive practices I propose to impose conditions on [Voltage Pictures] that will prevent speculative invoicing,” he wrote.

This means that Voltage will be required to send a draft of the letter it intends to send to alleged downloaders for the Judge to approve. Sadly, no matter how well intentioned, this ‘safeguard’ will likely do absolutely nothing to change the outcome or business model of this notorious copyright troll.

As pointed out by Justice Perram in his ruling, the same approach was ordered in Golden Eye (International) Ltd v Telefonica UK Ltd [2012], another trolling case in the UK. Judicial oversight in that case stopped Golden Eye from citing any precise monetary claim whatsoever in their initial letter, thus removing their ‘invoicing’ value.

While great in theory, no subsequent correspondence was monitored by the court and the topic of money was raised immediately after the court turned its back. The same thing also happened in the recent case involving a company called Mircom. As required, no money was claimed in the initial letter but as soon as people wrote back, all protestations of innocence were ignored and cash demands were forthcoming alongside threats of financial ruin.

Make no mistake, the Speculative Invoice WILL come to Australia. Justice Perram (for all his good intentions) has just delayed it by one envelope, at most. It’s possible he will read this piece and decide to do more, but it’s unlikely.

So, presuming no further protection will be forthcoming from the Federal Court, the responsibility for looking after the interests of the innocent – and there will be plenty of them – will fall into the laps of the only people with the power to bring this under control – the ladies and gentlemen of the media.

Aussie publications large and small need to step up to the mark, listen to the people being targeted and tell their stories. Sure, some will have brought this on themselves, but there will be others – such as account holders identified as infringers merely by virtue of them paying the Internet bill – who will have done absolutely nothing wrong. They deserve a voice.

It’s also worth noting that Voltage has indicated awareness over potential negative media coverage but take those comments with two large pinches of salt. This company knows exactly what it’s doing and in the United States they have had a very easy ride, no matter who they sued. That easy ride has only encouraged them to expand elsewhere, including Europe, Australia and more recently, Singapore.

That said, Voltage are not immune from criticism. Their claims – that they will not target the one time downloader, those on welfare, the disabled, or those in the military – should be closely monitored, and when they wrongfully pressure innocent account holders to give up the identities of those around them so that they can be pursued too, the public should hear about these tactics.

Their inevitable demands for many hundreds, possibly several thousands of dollars from regular citizens based on mere allegations that have never been taken to a fully contested trial, should be publicized too.

But the people can’t do this alone, they need the assistance of an inquisitive and persistent media determined to monitor Voltage’s behavior every step of the way. It won’t be pretty and there will be plenty of misdirection, but allow this company free reign in Australia and they will be only the first of many trolls to land Down Under.

There’s no question that copyright holders should have the ability to protect their content, but trolling is a business that only thrives because of its success in intimidating the weak and vulnerable. Any company engaged in these practices that claims otherwise is taking us all for fools, and should be held to account – publicly and in print.

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