I am very excited to see that judges are starting to get involved in the discussion of whether it is proper to sue tens, hundreds, or thousands of John Doe Defendants accused of downloading copyrighted films (usually pornographic in character, and using bittorrent to do so) in one lawsuit.
Just a few days ago, I wrote about Judge Beryl Howell’s opinion in D.C. where she ruled that joinder of any number of defendants in a bittorrent lawsuit is OKAY. Her reasoning centered around the fact that the defendants are unnamed, and [ignoring the mass extortion scheme that is causing many families to hand over their life’s savings to the copyright trolls] that it is more “convenient” for the court to manage one lawsuit with thousands of UNNAMED Doe Defendants rather than trying to manage thousands of lawsuits with one defendant in each lawsuit.
This evening, I read an article from Sophicticated Jane Doe’s “Fight Copyright Trolls” (kudos to Raul) entitled “Judge Marrero: Pornography may not be entitled to copyright protection.”
Quite frankly, the article is not only one of the best articles I have read yet, but it teaches and describes the issues in a very methodical order and in a way that cannot be replicated in any blog post of mine, and for this reason, I highly suggest that you read 1) that article, and 2) the actual order (which is equally a good read for those interested in the topic).
My contribution is that although this order pre-dated Judge Howell’s order, it addressed the split not only in the Southern District of New York, but it also describes the issues surrounding bittorrent copyright infringement cases in which judges have been ruling inconsistently across the federal districts. It demonstrates that the issues are heating up, and that there is a need for consistent application of the joinder rules across the federal districts.
The funny part about this order is that whether or not joinder was proper in this case — “Next Phase Distribution, Inc. v. John Does 1-27” (Case No. 1:12-cv-03755-VM [or 12 Civ. 3755 for those New York attorneys who don’t like federal case law nomenclature], which is being heard by Judge Marrero in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York) — the SDNY Judge Marrero decided to sever and dismiss John Does 2-27 for reasons INDEPENDENT OF THE JOINDER RULES. Read on.
Here are the three reasons [independent of joinder] which Judge Marrero used to sever and dismiss the defendants:
Reason one – “it would be impossible to manage the discovery of 27 different defendants.”
Imagine seizing 27 different sets of computers and dealing with 27 different sets of discovery, where each defendant held their own depositions, interrogetories, and where each defendant answered their complaint with potentially different and incompatible defenses (e.g., it wasn’t me, it was my son, it was my neighbor; I have an open wireless connection, my wifi was hacked, etc.). It would essentially be like holding 27 different trials in one trial. For this reason, the judge decided to sever and dismiss the defendants.
Reason two – “it is conceivable that several of the John Does did not actually download the copyrighted film.”
According to Mike Meier’s own admission, “roughly 30% of names turned over by ISPs are not those who actually shared or downloaded the videos.” Now while this statement can easily be taken out of context, it points to the reasonable doubt as to whether an accused infringer is actually the one who downloaded the copyrighted film. What made me stop and stare at the screen was that I was so excited that the judge explicitly stated that “an IP address does not necessarily correlate to a particular alleged infringer because several people may access the same IP address.”
There is more to this statement than the judge realizes, and while it has application to IP addresses changing and being used by multiple infringers (specifically regarding cases where the plaintiffs track THE IP ADDRESS regardless of whether it was issued to the subscriber at the time the downloads happened), in this case, it has the simple application that the subscriber is akin to the owner of a telephone landline account, and many people come in to use their phone — the account holder is not the one that makes each and every call, and for this reason, the account holder cannot be held liable for something that someone else did on their account. Back to the case.
Reason three – “if the Motion Picture is considered obscene, it may not be eligible for copyright protection.”
I cannot state more clearly that as Raul described in his article, this certainly is a clear shot across the bow that I have been sensing in many cases for quite a while now – that pornographic films are obscene, and that they do not qualify for copyright protection.
All I could say about this is that a number of attorneys and I have discussed this issue, not in the context of whether a “cheating housewife,” a “babysitter,” or any genre is copyrightable in and of itself (see the topic of “Scènes à faire”), but in the context of simply whether an obscene film is copyrightable at all. For a long time, it wasn’t. Then NY and some states started to allow it, and now perhaps courts will start reconsidering the topic. For an interesting write-up on the topic, see here.
In short, judges are getting tired of these pornography lawsuits, and I am getting tired of judges granting early discovery to copyright trolls without restrictions.
For this reason, I am happy that judges are starting to smarten up, and hopefully they will all start taking my advise that if they are going to grant early discovery to the copyright trolls, 1) the contact information of the accused John Does should remain private to the copyright trolls — only the CITY AND STATE of each accused Doe Defendant should be provided; 2) if contact information is to be provided, that it be “in camera” meaning that the ISPs should produce the information NOT TO THE COPYRIGHT TROLLS, BUT TO THE COURTS (so that the extortion scheme where plaintiff attorneys scare defendants into settling), and 3) the information provided on each John Doe Defendant only be permitted to be used IN THE INSTANT CASE (and not in a subsequent case where the plaintiff attorney threatens that “unless you settle now, we will ‘name’ you in a lawsuit in your home state.”
Judge Forrest (and now Judge Marrero) has put one more spin on this which is commendable — that the identity of the accused Doe Defendant be kept anonymous on the court’s docket. While this is admirable, it is not enough because defendants don’t only settle out of embarassment for being associated with a pornography case — they settle because it is cheaper to pay the plaintiff attorneys off than it is to fight them. This is a sad and broken part of the legal system, and putting the protections I outlined above would stop the copyright trolls in their tracks and would make these cases go away once and for all.