Suing people for illegal file sharing appears to have made a comeback.
News that Voltage Pictures, producers of the Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker," filed a federal copyright complaint last week against 5,000 alleged file sharers caught many in the file-sharing community off guard. Hadn't the film and music industries dumped a litigation strategy in favor of a much more subtle approach, one that didn't drag fans into court where they stood to lose thousands of dollars?
It's true, the trade groups for the major players in both these sectors, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, gave up suing file sharers. For the past couple years, they've tried to persuade Internet service providers to suspend service to first-time copyright offenders--and though they don't like talking about it much, the MPAA and RIAA would like chronic abusers to be permanently booted off the networks. None of this, however, would happen without the accused receiving plenty of warning.
But the latest round of lawsuits isn't being brought by gargantuan entertainment conglomerates, with their legions of lawyers and deep pools of cash. A dozen or so little-known film companies, with far fewer resources than the big studios, have mounted their own legal challenge to file sharing. And these guys appear to be playing by their own rules. In a few short months, they've filed lawsuits against a combined 50,000 people. The RIAA in five years filed complaints against fewer than 40,000. Forget comparisons to the little guy being oppressed by "the man." The way these smallish filmmakers see it, they are the victims. To them this new chapter in antipiracy is David vs. David.
It likely won't matter to those being sued that these smaller film companies aren't as big or rich. Some people are confused and nervous. Since Friday, when news of the Hurt Locker" suit spread, there's been a lot of speculation about where the lawsuits are headed. Here are a few facts:
Question: I've received a letter from my ISP notifying me that Voltage Pictures, producer of "The Hurt Locker," has accused me of illegally sharing the movie. The company has requested that my ISP give up my name, home address, and IP and Media Access Control addresses. Can I do anything to prevent this?
People would likely need to file a motion to quash the subpoena, meaning an attempt to convince the court that they shouldn't have to comply with the subpoena because they're protected by some legal privilege and complying would mean violating that privilege.
Eva Galperin, referral coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the advocacy group for tech companies and Internet users, advises those accused in a copyright suit to begin the process by consulting an attorney. For the past several weeks, EFF.org has been soliciting attorneys for help in defending people in the cases brought by Voltage and the other film companies. Galperin also suggested that people check the Web site subpoenadefense.org.
Q: What are the U.S. Copyright Group and Dunlap Grubb Weaver?
They appear to be one and the same. Thomas Dunlap, the founder of the Dunlap Grubb Weaver law firm, appears to have created the name U.S. Copyright for an antipiracy operation. By all appearances, Dunlap is attempting to turn a profit out of suing accused file sharers and represents the makers of at least 10 films in addition to "The Hurt Locker." According to reports, Dunlap is offering to work free of charge for the film companies in exchange for a large cut of whatever money the operation brings in.
Q: I've been accused, but I'm innocent. What are my options?
Again, consult an attorney or the EFF. It's true that the majority of people accused by the RIAA during the music industry's five-year litigation campaign chose to pay the RIAA and settle. There are instances in past cases of people being wrongly accused. Tanya Andersen was accused by the RIAA five years ago of illegal file sharing, but she refused to settle because she said she was innocent. In January, copyright expert and legal blogger Ben Sheffner wrote: "The labels took depositions and examined her computer, but couldn't definitively tie Andersen to the illegal downloading. And so they dropped the case."
More recently, CNET reported that Cathi "Cat" Paradiso, a 53-year-old grandmother from Colorado, was accused of copyright infringement by several top studios for allegedly pirating such movies as "Zombieland," "Harry Potter," and "South Park." Eventually, her bandwidth provider, Qwest Communications, cleared her of any wrongdoing when employees there discovered Paradiso's network security wasn't set up properly and was compromised. Quest and other ISPs note that in most cases, customers are responsible for properly securing their Wi-Fi.
Q: How can Voltage and Dunlap be so sure that someone on my network shared files? What about spoofing, dynamic IP addresses, and hacking?
The debate over how accurately file sharing can be detected has raged for years. When it comes to an Internet protocol address--the number assigned to devices logged in to a computer network--everyone seems to be in agreement that accuracy depends largely on how well bandwidth providers keep track of this information.
The same goes for dynamic IP addresses, a term used to describe when a computer is assigned a different address. A static address is one that is assigned and doesn't change. One expert in the content-protection area, who requested anonymity, said ISPs are supposed to know the IP address of any computer at any given time, but he said some ISPs keep better records than others and there is sometimes the possibility of error.
Spoofing is a term used to describe the forging of an IP address, often attempted when a person is trying to cover his or her tracks online. The content-protection expert said that without knowing how Dunlap is collecting IP addresses, it's hard to say how susceptible the company's data is to spoofing. But "in theory" it shouldn't be a problem because "spoofs will not be routable IP addresses," he said. If Dunlap tried to make a connection to a spoofed IP address, it shouldn't be successful because the IP address isn't real.
Q: If my IP address is among the 5,000 in Voltage's lawsuit, how long before I receive a settlement letter?
Jon Harrison, a photographer from Irving, Texas, shared his experience with CNET on Monday. He provided documentation given to him by Verizon, his bandwidth provider, and by Dunlap. It shows that it was more than two months from the time he is alleged to have illegally shared a copy of the movie "Far Cry" until the time he heard from Dunlap. The company informed him last week that if he paid $1,500 before June 11, 2010, he could avoid being named in the lawsuit and possibly paying as much as $150,000 for each infringing act.
No accused file sharer anywhere has been required to pay such an amount.