Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Beware: Copyright Trolls Have Landed in Tennessee

It was only a matter of time before copyright trolls filed a bit-torrent lawsuit in Tennessee, like they've done in so many other jurisdictions across the country.  Over the past couple of years, I have helped individuals who find themselves at the opposite end of one of these lawsuits.  Now they've come to roost in our own backyard, filing suit on behalf of "Inseparable Prez" against more than 80 unknown defendants in Nashville, and more than 70 in Knoxville.  I imagine this is just the tip of the iceberg.  (For a 2012 article in the ABA Journal where I'm quoted on the copyright troll problem, see here.)

I am a strong believer in our copyright system, and I represent rights-holders every day against infringers.  But this is a different animal.  While owners of copyrights have every right to enforce and protect their copyrights, the technique the trolls are employing here is a modern twist on the old-fashioned shake down.  In my opinion, their methods are questionable at best and close to extortion at worst.

Their methods are similar wherever they go.  They obtain IP (Internet protocol) addresses of individuals they suspect have used a "bit-torrent" device to access movie content without paying for it.  They then file suit in federal court against multiple "John Does" and attach a list of the IP addresses as an exhibit to the complaint.  Next, they file a motion explaining that they need a subpoena to order the ISPs (Internet service providers, such as Charter or Comcast) to reveal the identity of individuals associated with each particular IP address.  By law, the ISPs are required to reach out to the John Does and tell them they have 30 days to file a "motion to quash" the subpoena, or otherwise settle the lawsuit.  If the individuals take no action, the ISPs will release their identities to the Plaintiff, after which the Plaintiff will amend the complaint to name the individual in the copyright infringement action -- for all the world to see.

Some courts have found several problems with the Plaintiffs' methods in these cases.  First, these Plaintiffs are suing IP addresses, not individuals.  Second, many of the individuals may not reside in Tennessee -- in legal terms, the court has no personal jurisdiction over them.  Third, they are attempting to "join" multiple defendants into a single action, when they involve completely different facts.  The only thing linking them together is that they allegedly accessed the same movie without permission, but all on different days and times, and all in different places.  When faced with copyright trolls in West Virginia, the federal court there dismissed the entire action, forcing those attorneys to pack their bags and find a friendlier location -- Washington, D.C. 

There are also practical problems with this approach to suing for copyright infringement.  I'll be the first to disagree with people who believe that everything on the Internet should be free.  But plenty of the folks who receive these letters from their ISP never actually accessed these movies.  Some did, but plenty of them merely neglected to password protect their wireless router, or trusted their teenage children to use the Internet responsibly.  Defending one of these lawsuits is time consuming and expensive, so many people choose to settle.  Others need to settle to protect their anonymity, either because they work in the entertainment business and their credibility is on the line, or because they're high profile individuals, or because the movie in question is x-rated and they don't want their names associated with the title. 

Individuals who receive one of these letters from their ISPs should contact a qualified attorney familiar with this area to seek advice and possible representation.   Another good option is to read over the subpoena defense resources provided by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation).