There is an interesting case coming out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California — the court where most of John Steele’s newer and smaller Does 1-40 cases are showing up. In severing and dismissing all defendants (except Doe #1) in the Pacific Century International Ltd., v. Does 1-101 (4:11-cv-02533-DMR) case, Judge Donna Ryu held that it is improper to sue bittorrent users from different swarms in the same copyright infringement lawsuit, even if they all downloaded the same copyrighted work (e.g., the same movie).
In her decision, Judge Ryu made the distinction that each swarm has bittorrent users downloading a particular .torrent file, but the files themselves might not be similar enough for the plaintiff to join together all of the John Doe Defendants from the various swarms into one lawsuit claiming that all the John Doe Defendants downloaded “the same copyrighted work”.
For example, in one swarm, bittorrent users might download a low quality version of a pirated movie (e.g., perhaps from a “CAM” — an individual who takes a camrecorder into a theater and video tapes the film). Similarly, the bittorrent users of another swarm might be downloading a higher quality version of that same pirated movie, (e.g., a leaked high DVD quality version of a movie shared with movie screeners).
While each of these users who download copies of the copyrighted work — whether low quality or high quality — would likely be found guilty of copyright infringement [should any of the plaintiff attorneys decide to take these cases to trial rather sending out “scare” letters, making threatening phone calls, and in some cases naming defendants for the sole purpose of eliciting settlements], Judge Ryu ruled that it is improper to join the first swarm of bittorrent users (e.g., the low quality film downloaders) with the second swarm of bittorrent users (e.g., those downloading the leaked DVD version of that same work) BECAUSE the first swarm of downloaders WOULD NEVER INTERACT with the second swarm of downloaders. Thus, plaintiffs who join the John Doe Defendants of multiple swarms into one lawsuit claiming that each defendant necessarily participated in the SAME TRANSACTION OR OCCURRENCE is a faulty argument. Swarm #1 will never take part in the same transaction or occurrence as Swarm #2, and thus the judge ruled that it is improper to join defendants of the two swarms into one lawsuit.
This ruling flies in the face of almost every plaintiff attorney’s claim that each John Doe Defendant is properly joined with all the other defendants in that same lawsuit. Moving forward, should judges in other cases and in other jurisdictions adopt this judge’s opinion, following this opinion, the rule would be “ALL LAWSUITS THAT SUE DEFENDANTS OF DIFFERENT BITTORRENT SWARMS IN THE SAME LAWSUIT SHOULD BE SEVERED AND DISMISSED.”
How does this change the playing field? As we already know, John Steele, Ira Siegel, and the other plaintiff attorneys have already started suing smaller numbers of John Doe Defendants. Seeing a “Plaintiff v. Does 1-40″ or “Plaintiff v. Does 1-60″ (or even smaller) has become commonplace in bittorrent lawsuits. However, these smaller lawsuits have been made smaller in order to 1) fix the inherent issues of jurisdiction (e.g., suing defendants in the wrong court), and 2) to keep the case under the radar of the judges (after all, a lawsuit suing fifty defendants (Does 1-50) will incur far less attention than a lawsuit suing five thousand defendants (Does 1-5,000). Thus, in the new trend of these lawsuits, California defendants are now being sued in the California courts, Illinois defendants are being sued in the Illinois courts, and so on. Until the plaintiff attorneys begin suing defendants swarm-by-swarm (where a swarm is merely a snapshot of users uploading and downloading at a particular time), these smaller lawsuits also suffer the inherent flaw of “improper joinder,” and thus in time, they too will be severed and dismissed.
As a disclaimer, obviously this case is still alive as to John Doe #1 who remains a defendant in the case. In addition, there have been additional filings where the plaintiff attorney appears to be trying to convince the judge to change her mind on this matter.
I have attached a copy of the order below for your viewing and reading pleasure.