The heat is being turned up on the company representing the producers of "The Hurt Locker" as it wages a wide-ranging litigation campaign against illegal file sharing.
In Arizona, a law firm called White Berberian recently began advertising on its site that it will defend those accused of illegal file sharing by Dunlap Grubb & Weaver. That is the firm, which also goes by the name U.S. Copyright Group, that is filing lawsuits on behalf of filmmakers who claim their movies were pirated by thousands of peer-to-peer users.
In addition to the Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker," Dunlap Grubb represents about a dozen movies, including "Far Cry" and "Call of the Wild 3D." The law firm has said that it will sue more than 50,000 alleged file sharers.
So far, it appears thousands of people have received settlement offers from Dunlap Grubb and many are confused about their rights. Typically, people learn about being accused of violating copyright law from their Internet service providers, which inform them that they have received a subpoena to turn over their identity to Dunlap Grubb.
The law firm usually follows up with a form letter informing the accused that someone using their Internet protocol address was illegally sharing one of the films. Dunlap Grubb then tells the accused file sharer that they can settle the case for $1,500 if they move quickly. If they wait, the firm will charge them $2,500 and if they decide to fight it out in court, Dunlap Grubb can ask for up to $150,000.
This is what White Berberian said on its Web site: "It is important for you to consult with an attorney regarding your rights and risk exposure in connection with this matter. While we cannot guarantee a particular outcome, if we cannot negotiate a settlement better than what Plaintiff offered, we will refund your money."
White Berberian charges $249 to negotiate a settlement on behalf of accused file sharers. That fee will not cover any "litigation-related activities" the attorneys said on the site. Steven White, one of the two founders of the firm, stressed in an interview with CNET late Friday that he and law partner Sean Berberian won't charge any client, unless they save the client money.
He acknowledged that neither he nor Berberian are experts in intellectual-property law but said they have a good understanding of the issues. The way they see the landscape looks like this: it is in Dunlap Grubb's interest to get the cases settled as quickly as possible, and this is where White Berberian hopes it can persuade the lawyers and Voltage Pictures to negotiate.
That's fine, but what about people who claim to be innocent and refuse to settle?
White said that for people who are innocent and want to fight, he would have a "frank discussion" about the facts of their case and the cost. According to White, the first thing that people accused of copyright infringement by Dunlap Grubb should know is that the firm is probably willing to sue a few people so that they can prove to everyone that their threats about litigation are real.
"If they don't get judgments against some of their targets, the threats they make in their demand letters will ring hollow," White said. "Nobody is going to be afraid of people who haven't sued."
The problem for those accused is that most don't have "$100,000 to fight the likes of Dunlap Grubb and Voltage. He predicts that the people who will challenge them either have the money to pay for their own litigation or have the backing of an organization such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an advocacy group for tech companies and Internet users, including those accused of file sharing.
If a figure like Jammie Thomas-Rasset emerged, it could get tricky for Dunlap Weaver and Voltage, predicted White. The case of Thomas-Rasset, the Minnesota woman accused by the music industry of illegally sharing 24 songs, has dragged on for years and has likely cost the Recording Industry Association of America millions of dollars in legal fees. "(Dunlap Weaver) can't have any losses on the books," White said. "You have to prove you're on sure legal footing, or else nobody is going to pay."
White said the reasons he and his partner are taking on these cases is that he's talked to people who "didn't know what they were doing was illegal and now find themselves in an awkward position."
The litigation campaign employed by Dunlap Grubb caught many in the file-sharing community off guard. The film industry dabbled in lawsuits only briefly years ago, and the music industry walked away from a 5-year-old campaign in December 2008. Suing people for filing sharing appeared to be a failed and forgotten strategy for copyright owners.
Dunlap Grubb brought file-sharing suits back to the forefront when Voltage Pictures, producers of "The Hurt Locker," hired the lawyers to go after people who had shared the film--many of whom obtained a copy prior to the movie's theatrical release. "The Hurt Locker" leaked to the Web five months before its debut, and presumably, this is one of the reasons why the movie grossed only $16 million in the United States.
According to Voltage's complaint, filed last month in federal court in Washington, D.C., the film's producers intend to sue 5,000 people. Since filing that suit, Dunlap Grubb has met with considerable resistance. To learn the real names of alleged file sharers, Dunlap Grubb first must obtain IP addresses of those who shared the movie and then must hand those over to the sharers' ISPs so they can match the address with an identity.
But this takes time and resources, and Time Warner Cable and other bandwidth providers say the volume of searches Dunlap Grubb requested is unreasonable.
Rosemary Collyer, a federal judge scheduled to hear one case featuring 4,000 defendants, appears concerned that "so many defendants from across the country" are wrapped up in a single suit, according to a story on news blog Ars Technica. Collyer, who may have been spurred to action because of complaints made about this issue by the ACLU and EFF, has given Dunlap Grubb until June 21 to explain why it should be allowed to include so many people in a single suit.
All the push-back might have prompted Dunlap Grubb to change strategy. Jon Harrison, 64, from Irving, Texas, is accused of illegally sharing the movie "Far Cry." He noticed that there were more IP addresses requested in the initial "Far Cry" suit than those included in the "Hurt Locker" complaint.
Update, 1:34 p.m. PT: Turns out that the reason there were fewer names in the "Hurt Locker" complaint was that Dunlap Grubb only included a sample of 10 IP addresses for each of the ISPs. Thanks to reader Alex for the heads-up.
Update, 2:51 p.m. PT: Added quotes from Steven White of White Berberian.