40,000 ways to file a lawsuit

How do you file lawsuits against 40,000 people you think are infringing your copyrights?  Sounds like the answer is “one at a time”:

Thousands of unnamed “John Does” in P2P file sharing lawsuits filed in California, Washington DC, Texas, and West Virginia have been severed, effectively dismissing over 40,000 defendants. The plaintiffs in these cases must now re-file against almost all of the Does individually rather than suing them en mass.

Let’s unpack this.  Copyright owners often don’t know the names of people they suspect of using the Internet to infringe their works — they only know that such-and-such an Internet protocol address allegedly accessed a pirated file of their content.  In order to match that address with a particular person, they often have go to court to compel an Internet service provider to tell them what account/person is associated with that address.  They can only sue individuals once they have actual names.

Copyright owners have been in the habit of suing thousands of “John Doe” IP addresses in one lawsuit and then using those names to settle quickly:

These rulings may have a significant impact on the copyright trolls’ business model, which relies on being able to sue thousands of Does at once with a minimum of administrative expense. The cost of filing suit against each Doe may prove prohibitively expensive to plaintiffs’ attorneys who are primarily interested in extracting quick, low-hassle settlements.

In my view, courts’ rejection of this tactic brings some procedural balance back to copyright infringement lawsuits.  Copyright owners often sue alleged infringers in courts that are convenient for the owner, and this can effect a substantial injustice.

Perhaps a concrete example is in order.  Let’s assume an individual defendant that (1) is unquestionably innocent and (2) lives in Iowa.  Let’s further assume the plaintiff copyright owner is a movie studio based in California who wants to sue her in Los Angeles.  As a practical matter, this defendant has a difficult choice.  Litigation is always inconvenient and expensive, but hiring a California-based attorney from Iowa and flying out to Los Angeles is probably more than a typical defendant can afford.  Under these circumstances, she may pay the studio a $2,000 settlement even though she’s innocent just to make the matter go away.  After all, it’s pretty easy to burn through $2,000 with a lawyer and travel expenses.

Given this procedural tilt favoring copyright owners, it seems only fair that they be required to file their suits one at a time.  If a copyright owner doesn’t think her claim is even worth a filing fee, she probably shouldn’t be filing that lawsuit in the first place.  Copyright was, after all, designed “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, not to provide extra-judicial windfall profits to content owners.

Thanks to Matt Berntsen for the original link to the EFF write-up.

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