Every day, millions of people from all over the world submit posts, comments, and other content to Reddit.
Most discussions are relatively harmless but, every now and then, users unwittingly incriminate themselves, totally unaware of the potential ramifications their writings can have offline.
When something’s clearly wrong, the authorities can take action. Last year, governments and law enforcement sent more than 1,000 information requests to Reddit, seeking user details. In addition, Reddit was served with 277 search warrants and 582 subpoenas targeted at users of the platform.
Reddit complies with most of these information requests, but not all. Earlier this year the company objected when a group of filmmakers requested the personal details of several users as part of an ongoing lawsuit against Internet provider RCN.
Filmmakers vs. Reddit
The filmmakers turned to Reddit after they found public comments that could help their case. As part of the RCN lawsuit, they identified several potentially relevant threads and requested a DMCA subpoena, ordering Reddit to identify the anonymous users.
The Redditors in question discussed issues such as RCN’s handling of copyright infringement emails. The filmmakers could use this information to their advantage, but only if they could obtain the identities of the commenters first.
Reddit was unhappy with the subpoena, characterizing it as overbroad and more akin to a fishing expedition than regular evidence gathering. Reddit only handed over the details of one user whose comment mentioned RCN, denying other ‘less relevant’ ones, while citing the users’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech.
The court eventually agreed with this defense, concluding that Redditors’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech outweighs the interest of rightsholders. According to U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler, the filmmakers have other options to obtain this type of information, including through RCN itself.
Another ISP, Another Reddit Subpoena
Judge Beeler’s ruling was a setback for the filmmakers but a few weeks ago they went to court again over a similar request. This time the request is part of their piracy liability lawsuit against Internet provider Grande, and singles out a new group of Redditors.
Reddit refused to hand over the information directly which prompted another motion to compel that, once again, landed on Judge Beeler’s desk. According to the filmmakers, they have no other options to secure the evidence which, among other things, includes comments on Grande’s handling of copyright notices.
The filmmakers stated that they already requested and received the personal details of 118 frequently pirating subscribers from Grande. However, contacting these people didn’t yield the desired results. Facing a deadline, they chose to go after the Reddit users instead.
In a replay of moves, Reddit has just responded in court, pointing out that their users’ right to anonymous speech should be protected. The company argues that the filmmakers still fail to make a convincing argument. As in the earlier case, Reddit users are not an “irreplaceable source” of evidence.
“Weeks ago, this Court denied a nearly identical motion by these same Plaintiffs,” Reddit writes in its opposition brief.
[R]ather than returning with better facts capable of meeting the applicable First Amendment standard, Plaintiffs here offer worse facts–expressly acknowledging that they have no need to identify these Reddit users at all.”
The filmmakers seek information to show that Grande failed to properly implement a repeat infringer policy and that this failure acted as a draw to potential subscribers. In the earlier RCN case, Reddit and the court noted that the rightsholders could obtain this information directly from RCN subscribers.
This is also the case in the Grande lawsuit, Reddit argues. In fact, the company notes that the filmmakers’ statements to the court show that this is possible.
“[U]nlike in RCN, the Plaintiffs here have already successfully done exactly what Reddit suggested Plaintiffs do there. Plaintiffs have already obtained from Grande identifying information for 118 of Grande’s ‘top 125 pirating IP addresses’.
“That concession dooms the Motion; Plaintiffs cannot possibly establish that unmasking these six Reddit users is the only way for Plaintiffs to generate evidence necessary for their claims when they have already succeeded in pursuing an alternative and better way,” Reddit adds.
In their motion to compel, the filmmakers said that they already contacted some Grande subscribers, which didn’t result in the desired information. However, these subscribers were not subpoenaed, which is a step the filmmakers could take before going after Redditors.
“While Plaintiffs claim to have ‘been sending letters to most of the subscribers of the 118 IP addresses,’ Plaintiffs conspicuously fail to state that they have subpoenaed those subscribers,” Reddit writes in a footnote.
In addition to five Reddit ‘witnesses’ who made general piracy-related comments about Grande, the filmmakers also singled out a 12-year-old comment from the user “xBROKEx”, who is a potential defendant because they specifically mentioned having pirated the movie The Expendables.
This comment could, in theory, provide evidence for a direct copyright infringement lawsuit. However, Reddit believes that without arguing a proper claim against the defendant, this user should not be unmasked either.
“Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a prima facie case of copyright infringement against xBROKEx based on their mention of ‘the expendables’ over twelve years ago when the statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years,” Reddit notes.
All in all, Reddit believes that the filmmakers have an even worse case this time around so the company asks Judge Beeler to protect anonymous speech as it did before.
A copy of Reddit’s opposition brief in response to the filmmakers’ motion to compel is available here (pdf)