Copyright trolls, unscrupulous legal firms who prey on courts’ lack of understanding of how the internet works, and on victims quite justifiable fear of being landed with insane damage claims, are a menace to internet users, so we are extremely pleased to hear the Electronic Foundation (EFF) announce a major victory against them this morning.
The federal appeals court case, which will set a powerful precedent against copyright trolls, was brought by several internet service providers (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and affiliates) with amicus support from EFF, the ACLU, the ACLU of the Nation’s Capitol, Public Citizen, and Public Knowledge, and regarded a mass copyright case against well-known copyright troll AF Holding/Prenda Law, who were trying to bully 1058 ‘Doe Defendants’ into paying settlements ranging from two to four thousand dollars each.
The term ‘Doe Defendants’ comes from the fact that the plaintiff in such cases does not know who the alleged offenders are, only their IP addresses. In this case, Prenda Law tried to coerce the above ISPs into identifying the owners of the IP addresses, so that it could threaten them with further action if they did not pay up.
The court decision established two important principles:
1. That in a mass Doe case a plaintiff must establish ‘good faith belief’ that all defendants have a connection to the court’s geographic territory (in this case Washington DC). As Prenda Law could only identify alleged offenders by their IP addresses, this was clearly not possible,
‘[W]e think it quite obvious that AF Holdings could not possibly have had a good faith belief that it could successfully sue the overwhelming majority of the 1,058 John Doe defendants in this district,’ said Circuit Judge Tatel.’
2. That there is a major limit to the number of Doe Defendants which can included in one suit, as only defendants who share a file at the same time be joined together in a single copyright infringement case. This shows an usually sophisticated understanding (for a court) of how BitTorrent works, and Judge Tatel’s ruling echoed the EFF’s analogy when he found that,
‘[T]wo BitTorrent users who download the same file months apart are like two individuals who play at the same blackjack table at different times. They may have won the same amount of money, employed the same strategy, and perhaps even played with the same dealer, but they have still engaged in entirely separate transactions. And “[s]imply committing the same type of violation in the same way does not link defendants together for the purposes of joinder.”’
With over 10,000 Doe defendants sued over copyright infringement in 2013 alone, we certainly hope this ruling will put a cramp on copyright troll’s activities, and as the first federal court ruling on this issue of its kind, it has every chance of making a real impact.