Four porn studios who sued unknown or anonymous John Doe defendants for copyright infringement recently saw their case suffer a serious setback.New York Magistrate Judge Gary R. Brown found the studios to be engaged in abusive litigation tactics.
Brown severely limited their discovery requests for detailed personal subscriber identifying information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Brown also found the studios had improperly joined defendants in an effort to avoid the costs of filing individual lawsuits. He ordered that all but one John Doe be dismissed from each case. One studio’s entire case was dismissed when it admitted that it did not own a copyright on the downloaded films.
It Started Like Nearly Every Other Copyright Troll Lawsuit
The plaintiffs claimed their copyrights were infringed when the John Does downloaded the studios’ copyrighted films using BitTorrent technology. The studios sought to discover, from the ISPs, the “name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, and Media Access Control (“MAC”) address of the defendant to whom the [provider] issued an IP address.” In the eyes of the studios, the subscriber was the infringer. The theory being: if the subscriber’s information is revealed, his or her name would then be substituted in the lawsuit in place of a John Doe.
Magistrate Brown Compares An IP Address To A Telephone Number & Therefore Is Not Suitable Evidence To Warrant The Disclosure Of PII
In denying the discovery request, Magistrate Brown noted that an IP address only identifies the location where any number of computers may exist. Claiming the subscriber to that address was the one who downloaded the film, according to Brown, was no more likely “[T]han to say an individual who pays the telephone bill made a specific telephone call.”
Brown also noted that one subscriber can have numerous computers used simultaneously by a number of different people. With wire-less connections, unknown people could be using a subscriber’s ISP. A company or business may be an ISP subscriber that allows access to employees, customers, or clients.
Since there is no way to determine the true downloaders identity via ISP records, granting the studios’ discovery request would have created too great a risk for the potential of innocent Internet users being drawn into litigation. Thus, Brown denied the discovery request finding that “the alleged infringer could be the subscriber, a member of his or her family, an employee, invitee, neighbor or interloper.”
Judge In Illegal Downloading Case Realized Plaintiff’s Primary Goal Was To Push For A Settlement
It also appeared, to the judge, that the studios primary reason for wanting the information was to pursue settlement with identified defendants – defendants who would likely not want to go to a public trial for downloading pornography. This type of abuse was verified when one identified John Doe presented uncontroverted evidence that he had offered the studios unfettered access to his computer; he also offered all discovery they might need to prove he was not the infringer. Instead of taking him up on his offer, the studios badgered him repeatedly to settle.
Judge Said Joinder Was Inappropriate In Illegal Downloading Lawsuit
Magistrate Brown found the studios had engaged in other abusive litigation tactics by improperly joining a large number of defendants in one lawsuit. The studios claimed that the joinder was proper because all the defendants were “acting in concert” to violate the copyright and that each case was based on common facts. Brown debunked both of these theories.
First, the dates of the alleged infringements were often weeks or months apart so the “acting in concert” standard was not met. Neither was the standard of “common facts” when it was noted that at least six of the already known defendants had individual defenses and the only way that they could defend themselves was on an individual case by case basis.
Brown noted it was more likely the studios were filing a single case with a large number of defendants in order to avoid a filing fee that would be involved with each individual case. In Brown’s district court that amounted to about $100,000 in filing fees the studios had “evaded.” Thus, Brown found the joinder to be improper and dismissed all but one John Doe from each case. If the studios intend to pursue their litigation, they must file each case individually.
Granted Limited Information For One John Doe In Illegal Downloading Lawsuit
For the one remaining Doe defendant in each case, Brown allowed the studios to obtain only the name and address of that one particular subscriber. No other information, such as email or telephone number, would be provided.
Attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was heartened by this ruling. Mitch Stolz, an experienced copyright attorney with the foundation, was quoted as saying, “There absolutely is a trend toward shutting down this sort of abuse of discovery.”
In fact, that trend is supported by Brown’s order where he cited several other district courts that have recently made the same rulings in similar cases. It can certainly be inferred from his order that he hopes other courts continue this trend.