Two years ago, Internet provider RCN was sued by several film companies, including the makers of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, London Has Fallen, and Hellboy.
The filmmakers accused the provider of failing to act against customers accused of piracy. Rather than terminating the accounts of persistent copyright infringers, the Internet provider looked away, they argued.
Subpoena to Unmask Redditors
Many other ISPs have faced similar claims in recent years, but the RCN lawsuit drew attention recently when Reddit was brought into the mix. The filmmakers took an interest in several comments posted by anonymous Redditors, which could potentially help to back up their claims against RCN.
In January, Reddit received a subpoena asking it to uncover the identities of these users. The social discussion platform largely rejected this request, arguing it would violate their users’ First Amendment Right to anonymous speech.
Reddit further argued that the filmmakers served their subpoena before discovery had begun. This wasn’t mentioned in our previous coverage but behind the scenes it had already ignited significant turmoil.
Disputed Discovery Date
According to the filmmakers’ attorney, Kerry Culpepper, discovery started when the subpoena was sent (January 7) and any claim to the contrary is “grossly negligent”, “untrue”, “outrageous”, or even “libelous”.
The lawyer reached out to Reddit asking the company to ‘correct’ the record before it could be reported by the media, fearing that a failure to do so would damage his reputation.
“I extend Reddit the opportunity to file an amended opposition by the end of today […] that deletes that argument and all references to it, explicitly notes that it was completely false, and extends an apology to Plaintiffs’ counsel and the Court for accusing Plaintiffs’ counsel of blatantly violating the rules,” Culpepper wrote.
Reddit wasn’t convinced by this request. Citing the court docket, the discussion platform believes that there is no need to correct anything.
“We do not take your accusations lightly. We have again reviewed the DNJ docket and see a January 26, 2023, docket entry instructing that ‘discovery relevant to all claims and defenses shall commence’.”
“We therefore disagree that any portion of our brief is false and decline your invitation to revise the brief. As for your settlement offer, Reddit respectfully declines,” Reddit’s attorney adds.
Ironically, the contested discovery date wasn’t mentioned in our reporting or that of Ars Technica. However, it’s in the news now.
Filmmakers Respond in Court
The email exchange above is highlighted in the filmmakers’ latest filing, where they respond to Reddit’s objections. The rightsholders maintain that all targeted Reddit users can provide key information and therefore they would like to receive their personal details.
Reddit was initially concerned that its users could be targeted with legal claims, but the filmmakers stress that this is not the case. Reddit still refuses to hand over the information, however, in order to protect the anonymous speech of its users.
The filmmakers tell the court that this First Amendment argument should meet a high standard, which isn’t warranted in this case.
“This Court should reject Reddit’s attempt to treat comments boasting of piracy or complaining of RCN’s browser hijacking as political or religious speech and order Reddit to disclose the requested information in accordance with the proposed order,” Culpepper writes.
Some of the users didn’t mention RCN specifically. For these, the filmmakers propose that Reddit can first share their IP-addresses, so they can check whether they’re subscribers to RCN or an affiliated ISP.
The filings and related documents show that tensions between the sides are rising. Culpepper’s declaration, for example, mentions that Reddit has “numerous active forums that openly discuss and support piracy.”
The attorney adds that Reddit’s alleged false statements about the discovery deadline could be a retaliatory move for requesting information about Reddit users, while Reddit can portray itself as having put up a good fight against copyright holders.
Reddit previously described the subpoena as a “wholly unjustified fishing expedition” that would violate the First Amendment and unduly chill speech.
All in all, it is clear that both parties have completely opposite takes on the matter. This isn’t a mud-throwing contest, though, and eventually the court will have to decide whether Reddit must disclose the requested information, or not.
A copy of the filmmakers’ reply in support of the motion to compel third-party Reddit to respond to the subpoena is available here (pdf)