The long-running debate over Internet file sharing seems certain to be renewed as a result of litigation filed by a Washington, DC legal group against more than 14,000 unidentified “John Does,” who are alleged to have downloaded movies from various independent producers using BitTorrent.
According to the Washington Post, attorneys for the US Copyright Group say their goal is to save the film industry from copyright pirates, but the three advocacy groups which have filed a friend-of-the-court brief (pdf) in the case charge that they’re only in it for the money.
“These are organizations that are formed for the purpose of suing, and they view the legal system as a system for making money and then use it to fund additional lawsuits,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attorney Jennifer Granick told the Post. “At least the RIAA was a real organization,” she added.
Adding to the interest value of the case is that the most prominent of the filmmakers behind the suit is Uwe Boll, widely known as “the world’s worst director.”
“This month, Boll found a new revenue source: mass lawsuits against P2P downloaders in US federal court,” Ars Technica reported in April. “The first suit from Achte/Neunte Boll Kino Beteiligungs GmbH targets ‘Does 1-2,094’ over their alleged sharing of Far Cry on BitTorrent networks. The move is part of a new international approach to recouping some of the money believed lost to online piracy. It is spearheaded in the US by a new entity calling itself the US Copyright Group, which has filed a host of such lawsuits in recent weeks against P2P users, mostly involving smaller independent films. The Hollywood Reporter first noted the lawsuit campaign, which isn’t designed so much to stop piracy as to monetize it.”
“Boll’s specialty is optioning gaming franchises with built-in name recognition,” Wired explained in 2006, “then somehow managing to snag high-profile actors…. He is also a savvy businessman. His production company, Boll KG, exploits a German tax loophole, so even when he films an English-language movie in Canada … his financiers get a fat write-off from the German government.”
“Like a modern-day Ed Wood, or a poor man’s Michael Bay,” the story continued, “Boll appears competent in every aspect of filmmaking except the actual making of the film. His movies are haphazardly scripted, sloppily edited, badly acted and, most crucially, brutally received. Out of 350,000-plus films rated by users of the encyclopedic movie site Internet Movie Database, Boll’s three game flicks all rank in the bottom 100. Critics, especially the legion of armchair Eberts who post scathing reviews on the Web, have made a sport out of beating up the director.”
The US Copyright Group, which is leading the lawsuits, began by identifying the Internet addresses of thousands of individuals who had downloaded movies from filesharing websites and then subpoenaed their service providers to obtain their identities. Verizon and Comcast have complied with the subpoenas, and some of those receiving “pre-litigation cease and desist orders” have already chosen to pay $1500 to $2500 to settle out of court, rather than face a potential penalty of $150,000 per download.
Time Warner Cable, however, is resisting the subpoena on the grounds that it would be burdensome and costly to supply the requested data, and the brief filed by EFF, Public Citizen, and the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties union is intended to support Time Warner in the case.
The primary argument raised by the advocacy groups is that there is no justification for filing a single case against thousands of individuals who are linked only by having downloaded the same movie. “By requiring those sued to defend these cases in D.C., regardless of where they live, and by having thousands of defendants lumped into a single case, the USCG has stacked the deck against the defendants,” EFF attorney Corynne McSherry explained.
The brief also raises the issue of online anonymity, noting that “robust protection for the right to engage in anonymous communication — to speak, read, view, listen, and/or associate anonymously — is fundamental to a free society. … Courts in this District have recognized that First Amendment protections extend to the anonymous publication of expressive works on the Internet even where, as here, that publication is alleged to infringe copyrights.”
It further notes that courts “have recognized that … at the outset of the litigation, the plaintiff has done no more than allege wrongdoing, and mere allegations generally do not overcome a privilege. They have further recognized that a serious chilling effect on anonymous speech would result if Internet users knew they could be identified by persons who merely allege wrongdoing, without necessarily having any evidence thereof, or any intention of carrying through with actual litigation.”