Congratulation to the Cashman Law Firm, PLLC defendants who will soon be dismissed from the AF Holdings, LLC v. Does 1-1,058 (Case No. 1:12-cv-00048) case filed TWO YEARS AGO in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Seeing that the appellate (circuit) court came out with a ruling this afternoon, I read the circuit court’s ruling with fervor thinking that I was about to write an article entitled “the jig is up, no more copyright trolling lawsuits.” Well, I am underwhelmed.
If you remember the Judge Beryl Howell CREATES A SPLIT in the DC Court article I wrote back in August, 2012, at the time, thousands of “John Doe” Defendants from across the U.S. were being sued in the US District Court in DC, and Judge Beryl Howell was in favor of allowing the mass bittorrent lawsuits to continue in DC, even though other district court judges [not former copyright lobbyists for the Recording Industry Association of America] (notably, Judge Wilkins, now a United States Circuit Judge) wrote opinions questioning the validity of mass bittorrent lawsuits. As a result of this, now almost two year later, we have a circuit court ruling resolving the question of whether “personal jurisdiction” and/or “joinder” are relevant questions for a court to investigate before it signs an order invoking the “machinery of the courts” to force a non-party ISP to comply with a subpoena [asking for them to turn over the private contact information of each subscriber implicated as a "John Doe"].
Judge David Tatel [writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit] wrote a few pointers that we already knew, and in my opinion, the circuit court’s ruling is two years, too late. The ruling is essentially that a court may justifiably force a plaintiff “copyright troll” to establish that it has PERSONAL JURISDICTION over the John Doe Defendants who are implicated in the lawsuit BEFORE it allows that copyright troll to obtain [through discovery] the list of names and addresses belonging to the internet subscribers. His opinion, however, resolves ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the hundreds of smaller John Doe (e.g., v. Does 1-20) lawsuits filling the courts’ dockets across the U.S., where the “copyright troll” plaintiffs have figured out that “you sue a defendant where a defendant lives.”
Next point. When requesting the subscribers’ contact information from an ISP, the plaintiffs purpose must be to gather this information for use in THIS LAWSUIT, and not for other proceedings or other lawsuits. Good luck enforcing this one. I have no doubt that we will still see defendants dismissed from one “v. Does 1-20” lawsuit, only to be named and served in his own “v. John Doe” lawsuit. This happens every day. Also, good luck stopping a copyright troll from calling up dismissed defendants and saying, “unless you settle with us, we will name and serve you in your own lawsuit.”
Then after glossing over the “you must sue a defendant in the state in which he lives” rule, thirteen pages later, Judge Tatel discusses joinder (who can be sued together as co-defendants in a lawsuit).
I thought the joinder discussion would be juicy, but it was vague and vanilla, and it lacked explanation. The ruling was essentially that “you can only sue John Doe Defendants together in one lawsuit as long as they were part of the same bittorrent swarm.” This precludes plaintiffs who often sue defendants who did the same “crime” of downloading copyrighted films using bittorrent, but they did so days or weeks apart. In mentioning what is considered the “same bittorrent swarm,” the judge mentioned ABSOLUTELY NOTHING as to what the scope of a bittorrent swarm is, and how long one lasts — whether a swarm continues for minutes, days, or weeks at a time — and who is properly connected in a bittorrent swarm to be sued together in a lawsuit.
All I pulled from his discussion is that “if Tom and Dick were downloading at the same time, they can be sued together in a lawsuit; joinder here would be proper.” However, if Tom finished downloading and logged off five minutes before Dick logged on, would this be considered the “same transaction or occurrence” to allow the two of them to be sued together? What happens if Tom finishes downloading and logs off, and by the time Dick logged on to the bittorrent swarm, everyone who was part of that swarm [e.g., all 10 or 20 people] also logged off and new people logged on. If Dick is downloading from a completely different group of downloaders than the group who was online when Tom was downloading, but they downloaded five minutes apart, is this the same bittorrent swarm or a different bittorrent swarm? The judge provided ABSOLUTELY NO ANSWER as to the scope of a bittorrent swarm, so we are still left with uncertainty.
…So you see why I am underwhelmed. The ruling was essentially, “personal jurisdiction, bla bla blah, joinder, blah blah blah.” I learned nothing new from this, and yet the media is jumping all over this as if it is some kind of jewel. NOTHING NEW HAPPENED HERE.
Putting all of this in perspective, if you think about only the issue that Judge Beryl Howell wanted the appellate court to answer, “whether personal jurisdiction and joinder are relevant in a discovery request to obtain information about not-yet-named ‘John Doe’ defendants who are identified merely by their accused IP addresses,” Judge Tatel did exactly what he needed to. He correctly answered, “yes, personal jurisdiction and joinder are relevant when the plaintiff attorneys ‘attempts to use the machinery of the courts to force a party to comply with its discovery demands.’”
Thus, when a copyright troll files a lawsuit against unnamed John Doe defendants, and they seek discovery to force an ISP to comply with a discovery request (e.g., a subpoena forcing them to hand over the contact information of the accused subscriber affiliated with that accused IP Address), issues such as personal jurisdiction and joinder ARE ripe for inquiry before the court grants the copyright troll permission to subpoena the ISP, forcing them to hand over the contact information of the accused “John Doe” defendants.