Prenda May Be Dead, But Copyright Trolling Still Going Strong
from the no-signs-of-slowing-down dept
With one of Prenda Law's key players, John Steele, pleading guilty and likely spending many, many years in prison, you might think that it would mean an end to egregious copyright trolling. However, Matthew Sag, who's spent years tracking the number of copyright trolling lawsuits, lets us know that trolling is still going strong, and it's only slightly modified since the days of Prenda:
...in the post-Prenda era, lawsuits filed against John Doe defendant made up more than 52% of all copyright cases in in the United States in 2014 and 58% in 2015. The number of suits dropped slightly after Malibu Media lost a case on summary judgment in January 2016, but the rate of filing is increasing again. Even so, between 2014 and 2016 copyright trolling accounted for 49.8% of the federal copyright docket.
Our analysis of the federal court filing records indicates that in 2016, the average number of defendants in each of the John Doe cases was 4.7 on a conservative estimate . In other words, although there were 1,362 John Doe copyright cases filed last year, 6,483 individual defendants were targeted. Without doubt, some of those people were illegally downloading movies, but a great many were not.
As Sag notes, copyright trolls don't seem to care much about being legally correct. They just need to be convincing enough to get people to pay up to avoid the lawsuit:
The new breed of plaintiffs who filled Prenda’s shoes are different to Prenda, but not different enough. The plaintiffs’ claims of infringement still rely on poorly substantiated form pleading and are targeted indiscriminately at non-infringers as well as infringers. Plaintiffs have realized that there is no need to invest in a case that could actually be proven in court, or in forensic systems that reliably identify infringement without a large ratio of false positives. Their lawsuits are filed primarily to generate a list of targets for collection; and are unlikely-in our view-to withstand the scrutiny of contested litigation.
The human cost of copyright trolling is significant. It is true that sometimes the plaintiffs get lucky and target an actual infringer who is motivated to settle. But even when the infringement has not occurred or where the infringer has been misidentified, some combination of the threat of statutory damages of up to $150,000 for a single download, tough talk, and technological doublespeak are usually enough to intimidate even innocent defendants into settling.
Copyright -- with the help of insane $150,000 statutory damages -- is still being used as a shakedown weapon, scaring people into paying up, not because of actual infringement, but because copyright trolls have learned how to use the law and the court system as a business model very similar to the one used by organized crime in certain neighbors: pay up or someone's going to get hurt. The unfortunate "new" part of this is that the "weapon" here isn't a baseball bat, but federal copyright law and the judicial system.
Sag now has a longer paper, along with Jake Haskell, looking at "the dark arts of copyright trolling" and how to defend against them. The paper has much more details than Sag's blog post linked above, along with pretty charts like the following one:
Of course, it also notes that this is a niche industry, with 62% of the trolling cases coming from just five companies. Malibu Media, unsurprisingly leads the way (by a lot), as it has done for several years. While Malibu Media has run into some problems in the courts, I'm still at least somewhat surprised that it hasn't received Prenda-level treatment by more judges. Perhaps that will change soon.
Either way, it's fairly clear that copyright remains seriously flawed if it's open to being abused so frequently, even if by a very small number of players.