RIAA Lobbyist Turned Judge Backpedals On BitTorrent Cases

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In the ongoing mass-BitTorrent lawsuits, last month U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell laid down a landmark verdict in favor of copyright holders. The verdict was widely publicized, but put in doubt after it was uncovered that the Judge was a former RIAA lobbyist. This critique appears to have had an effect. In two new orders in the same cases, Howell has now backpedaled on her earlier stance.

howellLess than a week after her investiture ceremony, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell gave several copyright holders carte blanche to continue their profitable settlement schemes. This verdict weakened the position of thousands of alleged BitTorrent users, some of whom may be completely innocent.

A landmark ruling, and one The Hollywood Reporter went so far to describe as “the most important decision to date in the ongoing mass-litigation campaign against thousands of individuals who traded copyrighted movies on BitTorrent.”

But then, a few days later we reported that Judge Beryl Howell may not be the most objective person to rule on these types of cases. After a quick background check we found that Howell earned close to half a million dollars as an RIAA lobbyist in previous years. At the time, she was the Managing Director and General Counsel at a consulting firm with expertise in digital forensics.

This unveiling of Howell’s close ties to the RIAA was again widely reported in the press, and it now seems that this may have had an effect. In two new orders that came out of the same cases where Judge Howell previously gave a carte blanche, she is now putting several restrictions on what the copyright holders can and can’t do.

In Maverick Entertainment cases, Judge Howell orders (pdf) the copyright holders to dismiss all the cases for which they indicated they would not name the defendants. This means that it will result in a dismissal “for all John Doe defendants for which the plaintiff has received identifying information as of February 1st, 2011.”

In the cases related to the Call Of The Wild movie (pdf), the judge appears to want to kill the case for the same reason John Steele’s CP Productions, Inc. case v. Does 1-500 case was killed in Illinois (violation of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 4m). That is, defendants had to be served within 120 days after the complaint is filed.

However, the copyright holders are being given the opportunity to give a good reason why the defendants should not be dismissed, and in both of the above cases they have the option to name new defendants in an amended complaint.

TorrentFreak talked to Texas lawyer Robert Cashman, who represents several defendants in mass-BitTorrent lawsuits, to find out how he sees the remarkable turnaround and what the latest orders mean for the current defendants.

“Whether these defendants get dismissed or not is based on the coming acrobatics of the plaintiff attorneys, and how hard the judge claps her hands in amusement,” Cashman told us in a response.

Interestingly, Cashman agrees that it appears the negative attention on her RIAA past may have had an effect on her ruling. He thinks that bringing the nefarious nature of the cases to Judge Howell’s attention may have led to the latest orders.

“I do not think she was aware when she wrote her opinion, that the plaintiffs were using the legal system (her court) to harass and extort thousands of dollars from each of the John Doe defendants while pretending to her as if they were merely conducting evidence gathering,” Cashman said.

“It appears she — consistent with her previous ruling — is finding another way out of these cases while still keeping her past pro-copyright stance in accordance with the current US administration’s policy against copyright infringement,” he added.

Whatever the true motivations for Judge Howell are, the end result is more positive for the defendants than Howell’s previous verdicts. Together with the thousands of dismissals we’ve seen in recent weeks, it’s beginning to look like the mass-BitTorrent lawsuits may not be that profitable for the copyright holders after all. Not even with an former RIAA lobbyist as a judge.


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