Millions of people regularly pirate movies and music without getting into trouble. In fact, some pirates even discuss their habits openly on the Internet, on platforms such as Reddit, for example.
Admissions of anonymous Redditors typically go unnoticed by copyright holders but even when observed, it’s rare for companies to take matters further or ask any questions. A group of independent filmmakers in the United States recently attempted to buck that trend.
The film companies and their attorney Kerry Culpepper are not planning to take any Reddit users to court. However, they do want to reach out to them to ask some questions about their Internet providers, which are being targeted in various lawsuits.
Filmmakers vs. Anonymous Redditors
Earlier this year, the filmmakers turned to Reddit after they found public comments that may help their case. As part of the RCN lawsuit, they identified several potentially relevant threads and requested a DMCA subpoena, hoping to compel 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 obtained the identities of the commenters first.
Reddit was unhappy with the subpoena and only handed over the details of one user whose comment mentioned RCN. Reddit refused to hand over the details of users who posted ‘less relevant’ comments, arguing that their First Amendment right to anonymous speech outweighs the interests of rightsholders.
The court eventually agreed with this defense, concluding that Redditors’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech should be protected. 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 returned to court with a similar request. Targeting a new group of Redditors, this time the request was related to the filmmakers’ piracy liability lawsuit against Internet provider Grande.
The Reddit users all commented in threads with information that could be relevant to the Grande lawsuit, with many directly referring to piracy activity.
The filmmakers argue that the Redditors can be used as witnesses to show that Grande failed to properly implement a repeat infringer policy, with that failure acting as a draw to potential subscribers.
Reddit again refused to identify its users, arguing that the right to anonymous speech outweighs the interests of the film companies. Reddit does not deny that its users are relevant, but the company stresses that the information sought by the filmmakers can also be obtained from other sources.
Among other things, Reddit refers to the filmmakers’ statement that they had already obtained a list of the 118 top pirating IP addresses from Grande. While initial attempts to contact those people didn’t lead to useful information, the filmmakers didn’t subpoena these potential witnesses.
Court Protects Redditor’s Right to Anonymous Speech
After reviewing arguments presented by both sides, the motion to compel was denied by the court. This means that Reddit doesn’t have to identify the anonymous Redditors.
“The court denies the motion because the plaintiffs have not demonstrated a compelling need for the discovery that outweighs the users’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech,” Judge Beeler concludes in her order.
The court doesn’t disagree that the Redditors could offer usable testimony. However, since the filmmakers can also obtain this information from other sources, unmasking the anonymous users would go too far.
Subpoenaing (some of) the 118 top pirating Grande users directly would make more sense. That information will be more recent than the rather dated Reddit comments and wouldn’t necessarily require more time.
“They are the top pirating IP addresses, and they are from a more recent time period: it is not obvious why subpoenaing even a subset of those addresses would not yield information at least equivalent to, if not better than, information from the six Reddit subscribers.
“The [Reddit] information may be relevant, but it is also attenuated: it is at best weak evidence about Grande’s insufficient policy regarding repeat infringers or its appeal to pirating subscribers,” Judge Beeler adds.
In addition to the five Reddit ‘witnesses’ who made general piracy-related comments about Grande, the filmmakers singled out a 12-year-old comment from the user “xBROKEx”, who specifically mentioned having pirated the movie The Expendables.
This comment could, in theory, provide evidence for a direct copyright infringement lawsuit. However, Judge Beeler treated this person as a witness because the filmmakers failed to make a prima facie copyright infringement case against this person.
All in all, the denial means that the identities of the six Reddit users won’t be shared with the filmmakers. While the users aren’t accused of any wrongdoing, not being dragged into a copyright dispute through the side door is likely to be a relief.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, have to find other ways to obtain the required information. Whether they will try to get information from Reddit again in the future is unknown. If they do, they would likely have to seek a new approach.
A copy of U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler’s order on the motion to compel is available here (pdf)