Extortion-Like Mass Automated Copyright Lawsuits Come To The US: 20,000 Filed, 30,000 More On The Way

from the this-is-not-how-the-legal-system-is-supposed-to-work dept

Uh oh. It appears that a group of independent filmmakers don’t seem to recognize the kind of backlash they can receive for going to war against file sharers. It appears that a company, ridiculously named the US Copyright Group, has signed up a bunch of independent filmmakers, with the unofficial backing of Independent Film & Television Alliance, to follow in the footsteps of the disastrous European automated copyright infringement threat letter campaign, and have already gone after 20,000 alleged file sharers with another 30,000 about to follow. Five specific lawsuits have been filed, listing the 20,000 IP addresses accused of infringement.

We’ve covered the shenanigans of companies like DigiProtect, Davenport Lyons and ACS:Law over in Europe for a while, where they monitor BitTorrent activity and then send out tens of thousands of “pre-settlement” threat letters, demanding payment to avoid a lawsuit. Of course, with such a machine gun approach, a ton of totally innocent people are sent such letters demanding payment. This practice has been condemned by politicians, consumer advocates, lawyers, ISPs and even (believe it or not) the recording industry. Some of the lawyers involved in these programs have been referred for disciplinary action and some involved in this practice have been barred from practicing law.

And yet, apparently these letters are really lucrative. Many people just pay up to avoid any lawsuit — and many of the companies in the space pitch this not as a way to “stop file sharing” but as a way to “monetize file sharing.” In fact, with at least some companies in the space, they’re seeding the content themselves — despite the fact that this raises all sorts of questions over whether or not this is “authorized.”

For a while, we’ve wondered why such practices have stayed in Europe, and assumed that perhaps those in the US had looked at the disastrous PR results of the RIAA’s lawsuit campaign. Or, maybe, seen how well-known companies quickly backed out of such schemes after the negative publicity of mass threat letters. These days, most of these threats seem to come from porn providers and small software firms.

However, with this new campaign in the US, it looks like the lawyers involved (built off a program in Germany) have signed up a bunch of independent film producers. The full story, by Eriq Gardner at THREsq, has plenty of details. Apparently, the lawyers sought to get the support of both the IFTA and the MPAA, and got some sort of unofficial support:

Before doing so, however, Dunlap talked with the IFTA, which wouldn’t explicitly endorse the litigation, but which agreed to be generally supportive. Dunlap also talked with the MPAA and other big studios, which expressed interest but wanted to see proof that ISPs would be cooperative. And so, in the past few weeks on behalf of some low-key indie films, the first lawsuits were filed.

Of course, those involved are also touting this as a “revenue stream” and “monetizing the equivalent of an alternative distribution channel.” That’s a really stunning statement when you think about it. While I’m sure some independent filmmakers are happy to get some money, this is a scorched earth method of getting paid. This is putting a gun to people, based on little evidence, and forcing them to pay up.

That’s not how you build a business. That’s not how you build up fans. It’s certainly not going to build up any loyalty.

Gardner’s article highlights three risks with this plan: the PR disaster potential, the legal questions over IP addresses as evidence as well as whether or not a BitTorrent fragment really is infringement, and ISPs’ general unwillingness to hand over names without a lawsuit filed:

To get past ISPs, a copyright holder needs to file a “John Doe” case and get a court to issue a subpoena that orders the ISP to hand over information. This can be costly. According to Dunlap, ISPs are charging $32 to $60 for each IP address account requested. ISPs cite the cost of notifying the account holder and giving them opportunity to file a motion to quash the subpoena.

When the U.S. Copyright Group filed its recent lawsuits and approached AT&T and other ISPs for account information, the lawyers say they were stunned at the reaction. “Their subpoena compliance group said, ‘We thought we had shut this (approach) down with the MPAA before,'” says Dunlap.

The difference between the MPAA’s past approach and the new one being offered by the US Copyright Group could come down to numbers. Weaver says the MPAA took a less targeted approach going after a smaller sampling of infringers in a single suit for multiple films, to send a message that would hopefully resonate to a much larger crowd. In contrast, Dunlap and his partners are using the new monitoring technology to go after tens of thousands of infringers at a time on a contingency basis in hopes of coming up with the right cost-benefit incentive to pursue individual pirates.

He then noted that one ISP (unnamed, unfortunately) has cooperated and just handed over 71 names, all of whom were sent “settlement offers.” The other ISPs, who fought this in the past, are apparently trying to fight it here as well. Hopefully the courts shut down such a blatant machine gun approach quickly.

But the bigger issue, really, is that anyone thinks this sort of move makes business sense. We’ve been seeing more and more independent filmmakers embracing smart new business models that involve building a loyal fan base and giving them a real reason to buy. We’ve seen independent filmmakers embracing file sharing to their own advantage, building up huge and loyal followings, and then figuring out how to sell them something valuable and scarce. To see a bunch of independent filmmakers now go down this extortion-like path instead is really disheartening.

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Companies: us copyright group

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Comments on “Extortion-Like Mass Automated Copyright Lawsuits Come To The US: 20,000 Filed, 30,000 More On The Way”

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bishboria (profile) says:

Here goes a long shot:

Perhaps the US Copyright Group are tricking the independent film makers into thinking that file sharing will harm the films they make. And by that, the film makers may denounce *fans* who do download their films. There by causing the indie film makers not to get noticed, not making money and then believing the USCG were right all along.

Conspiracy theory or what? 🙂

wheatus (user link) says:

I submit that...

….Infrastructure is the problem. Does it take a 100+ crew to make a movie?….nope…well at least not for Stanley Kubrick it didn’t. How about producers & investors? No, we don’t need them either really. Most successful artists can only be found under a pile of cling on life forms.

Over the decades there has cropped up a comfy, essentially unskilled group of extraneous personnel to whom much of the budgets for films & records too for that matter, get funneled.

They have honed the practice of bringing less and less to the table and taking more and more away from it.

That’s who makes up this litigious cabal.

Again the question is begged, why does the standard retail agreement not cover all the bases? I make art, you want it so you buy it from me. If I’m smart I offer it for free and you tell your friends about that so more people come. The notion that an endless parade of profit sharing must unfold from any and all creative endeavors is not just complete nonsense, it is now completely unsustainable.

brendan b brown

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’d rather we put everyone in jail and not worry about who was innocent. It’s the only way to protect the (choose one) [children/industry/people/buggy-whip-makers/politicians] from (choose one) [terrorists/pedophiles/raporists/infringers/people/slander/the heat death of the universe].

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

@5 Are you clueless? It’s not about the number of people who may be SHARING, it’s about the number of people who AREN’T and are still receiving these letters. Tens of thousands of innocent Britons have gotten caught up in the ACS mass extortion lawsuits. The same will happen in the US.

I’ll be laughing when you receive a settlement letter for downloading a porn video.

Joe Auto-Notification says:

According to Dunlap, ISPs are charging $32 to $60 for each IP address account requested.

Maybe there’s a market answer to looking for genuine infringement. If ISPs charged $200 or $500 per IP search, these guys might have to be more discriminating. I mean, since these groups have no real evidence, there’s no obligation to do this for cheap, is there?

Talk about a new revenue stream!

Joe Auto-Notification says:

Re: Re: Re:

Then they just bump the settlement amount up to compensate.

“It has come to our attention that you are violating the copyright of one our artists. Unless you wish to settle this violation for infinity dollars, we will be forced to press charges which may involve jail-time, and monetary penalties up to infinity times infinity dollars.”

I would infringe just to get that letter.

Christopher Gizzi (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I thought of that, too!  If this US Copyright Group and others consider litigation a way to monetize BitTorrent distribution, I can’t see why ISPs can’t make some money and charge a pre-settlement service fee.  Of course, then ISPs would have an incentive to support infringement which would only force the US Copyright Group to send more letters so ISPs could charge them a fee.  Ponzi scheme!

Beta says:

open source defense

All right, enough ranting, what can be done? Apart from a legal defense fund (which wouldn’t be a bad idea), maybe there’s a “soft defense” that would work. Is there some legal maneuver that a victim can make which will cost the attacker a little money? I’m not a lawyer, but maybe a lawyer can suggest some little trick like a request for documents, proof of copyright ownership, anything that will cause some delay and expense. The victims can then cave and pay (we can’t ask them to brave lawsuits), but if we make such a technique public, say by a public-domain “send-me-the-following” letter that any victim can find by googling “US Copyright Group”, we make the whole scheme less profitable.

Chaz (profile) says:

Re: open source defense

I’ll tell you what can be done! Look up Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver (the law firm behind the lawsuits) on one of the many websites that allow consumers to tell the world what they think of a lawyer’s work, and post a comment! Obviously, these lawyers know what they are doing is wrong, which is why they are operating under the fake name “US Copyright Group.” Call them out on it! There is already one negative review at Yahoo! Local, but there are so many other review sites – Yelp, Merchant Circle, Google Local, Lawyers.com, and Avvo.com, to name a few.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just need to wait for all the innocent people who inevitably receive these letters to scan and post them. The only thing they ever seem to present as “evidence” in these types of situations is a file name, an IP address, and a time stamp. That, of course, proves nothing (if it isn’t made up entirely).

But if these letters follow the same format, all you have to do is identify the file names, look up information on the movies, and shame the cast, crew, distributors, and money people. Repeatedly.This is what’s known as “brand management.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“…an IP address, and a time stamp. That, of course, proves nothing (if it isn’t made up entirely).”

Uh – no. That can prove exactly whose internet connection was on that IP address at that exact moment. And the owner of the connection is responisible for what goes on that connection.

You are not hidden or anonamous just because you have a dynamic IP address.

That’s who will get the letters – but they will blame thier kids, neighbors, friends, hackers using thier open wireless connections, al queda, etc.

Overcast (profile) says:

Maybe there’s a market answer to looking for genuine infringement. If ISPs charged $200 or $500 per IP search, these guys might have to be more discriminating. I mean, since these groups have no real evidence, there’s no obligation to do this for cheap, is there?

Talk about a new revenue stream!

There is, of course, no ‘LAW’ stating the form must be faxed or emailed, I suspect.

Make them pick it up in person with proper ID.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Of course, those involved are also touting this as a “revenue stream” and “monetizing the equivalent of an alternative distribution channel.”

In other words, no one wants your work and so you try to try to make money off of the fact that others, who offer free creative commons content, have a way to compete with you and so you try and tax anyone that simply uses said distribution channel to distribute competing work. That’s low.

Jonathan says:

Re: Richard's comment (#30)

Agreed. What’s needed is a clearing house website identifying which films people are accused of infringing so the message quickly gets back to film makers.

I don’t infringe truly indy film makers or even most large studio productions less than 25 years old. Unlike in the old-school music industry, which technology has made genuinly obsolete, speculative cash remains necessary to create a film. Whether it’s an indy drama, a documentary, or a studio production someone has to risk losing money.

It’s the commodity trading of copyrights that pisses me off. Release of *existing* works (by long dead people) onto DVD can run into the tens of thousands just to clear scenes showing actors singing songs under copyright. Creators of those songs must be turning in their graves watching pencil necked assoles collect on their work. Work they wanted people to enjoy, by inspired by and use to create more art.

There’s good capitalism and there’s abuse of it. Right now Intellectual Property (IP) law is so fubar that ethical infringment applies healthy pressure against bad capitalism. In the long run it could prove good for art. But there’s abusive infringment too and it gives copyright investors traction in the legal realm.

thomas (profile) says:


Lawyers have learned to milk the legal system for their own purposes. It used to be called extortion, now it’s simply called a settlement letter followed by a lawsuit. They don’t really care if the person is guilty or not, they just want money and they know the average person doesn’t have the resources to withstand their pressure. How is this different from a thug demanding $500 or he will burn your house down?

Anon says:

Not Impressed

These actions are far more criminal than those of the downloaders. Once PROVEN that someone has downloaded something then they should have to pay for it’s retail value and not thousands of times the value of the product. If anything the downloader could be found guilty of a misdeameanor with a reasonable fine payable to the state.
The penalty doesn’t fit the crime and so we have Lawyer Extorsionists! They should be disbarred and prosecuted. My solution is simple, it was the same for CD music after what the RIAA did to people. I and so many others who used to buy a lot of CD’s will simply never buy another music CD again. ****Dramatic Pause**** Think they noticed the lack of sound from their cash registers? So we find out more about who these lawyer thugs are and who they represent and then we will boycott their product for life as well. These annoying small companies involved really should reconsider as this greed will be their demise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: the ISP that is giving up customer info...

Verizon is also giving up customer info. I just got a notice that my name will be given up for sharing a movie called the Steam Experiment. I have never even heard of the movie and have never even used any file sharing programs. Too many innocent people will get caught up in this for it to work. I will not lay down to them, but I also cannot afford a good lawyer. I am hoping that they have to prove without the shaddow of a doubt that there method is 100% accurate, which I know that they cannot do. If it was 100% accurate, I would not be caught up in this nonesense. I may not be able to afford a good lawyer, but I CAN afford to legally see the movies I want to see.

If anyone else is truely innocent and wants to email me, please do so, maybe we can combine forces and together afford a lawyer than can end this. I am willing to let anyone analyze my competer and prove that there never was any copywright infringement done by me. I don’t know antyhing about how files are shared and I know very little about computers. I’ve owned this computer for 7 years, I’m sure some computer guru can see that it alwasy been used for basic, normal, legal things. It’s never needed repair or have to be wiped out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: the ISP that is giving up customer info...

no – Qwest just will suspend your account and forward you the DMCA complaint(s) for the movies or music or software that you ilegally downloaded aand that there is HUGE proof of.

They don’t freely give info to the copyright holder.

This is true for all ISP’s. The reason they do that is to protect themselves using a safe harbor provision in the DMCA law. If they shut the infringers off and forward the comaints, then they are not laible for the eveil-doers actions.

No ISP freely gives out IP or customer information – they only do that with a subpoena. No subpoena – no info.

Sounds like maybe you just got suspended or something and are reading the complaints that they forwarded to you for “Anal Grandma’s Gone Wild” or something similar.

Maybe you should stop stealing stuff over the internet so you don’t have to worry about it.

I’ll bet if someone cleaned out your bank account over the internet, you would feel like ‘Stealing over IP’ shouldn’t be anonamous and might even be a crime…

Just sayin…

Arizona says:

Lawsuit Defendant

So we got a letter from our ISP yesterday, mind you the letter was dated Sept 30th but not mailed to us until October 13th. The subpoena requiring them to hand over our info was dated Aug 23rd and they had 7 days by DC Judges order to give us info so that we could quash the subpoena. They had to provide the info by Oct 1st. So tell me how the hell we are supposed to quash that subpoena before Oct 1st if we dont even get it until the 14th. This practice is extortion and abuse of process at its finest and a DC court has absolutely no jurisdiction over us in Arizona. Furthermore we do not download files of any kind online and have never even heard of that movie. This law firm is a joke! Pathetic bottom feeders looking for a way to manipulate the legal system. And the film makers are just as much of a joke, like anyone would want to watch any of those shitty films anyway. Shit for all we know the filmmakers could be uploading their own movies to those torrent sites for download and then suing anyone that downloads it. Fucking rediculous!

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