U.S. copyright law allows fines of up to $150,000 for copying a video or downloading it over the internet without permission, but a lot of people do it anyway. Copyright holders—the film companies—have a hard time knowing when it happens, and even if they catch someone, is it worth filing charges against a single violator when so many others are doing the same thing?
Yes it is, if there’s an efficient way to charge multiple people and wring money out of them all. Some attorneys have hit on a lucrative legal strategy known as “copyright trolling.” They hire experts to track down thousands of IP addresses of computers that have downloaded movies illegally, send their owners an ominous letter threatening legal action, then invite them to settle out of court for between $2,000 and $4,000.
As it turns out, many (but not all) illegal downloads involve porn films. Since lawsuits are public, copyright violators face the embarrassing prospect of having their names listed next to a porn film in a court document. To avoid the publicity and the expense of hiring a defense lawyer, most violators agree to settle out of court. Which is exactly what the copyright trolling attorneys planned.
“It’s based on intimidation and threats of embarrassment,” says Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer-rights group. In this case, Stoltz says, copyright laws are “not being used to compensate artists, they’re being used to shake people down for a quick buck.”
Illegal copiers and viewers of raunch perhaps deserve the shakedown. The problem, though, is that the people who get the intimidating letters may not be the ones who downloaded the film: Someone else could have used their computer or connection without their knowledge. But they might end up mailing a check anyway to avoid a court appearance. Stoltz uses an analogy: “If we say we’ve put 50 innocent people in jail, but we’ve also put 50 guilty people in jail, is that a good thing?”
It’s a difficult issue because there are two competing, legitimate interests at stake: the need to deter people from breaking copyright laws, and the need to protect the innocent from legal intimidation.
At any rate, some federal judges are wising up to copyright trolls, whose tactics, they say, are sometimes unscrupulous. In May U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II penalized a group of such attorneys $81,000.
In an amusing court order that used language borrowed from Star Trek, Wright took to “battle stations” and sanctioned the attorneys for using a “cloak of shell companies and fraud” to “plunder the citizenry.”
“[Attorneys] have outmaneuvered the legal system. They’ve discovered the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs.”
Defense Distributed, a Texas nonprofit, made history in May when it posted blueprints online for the world’s first 3-D printed gun. Except for a small metal firing pin, the “Liberator” pistol is made entirely of plastic formed layer-by-layer by a 3-D printer. It fires a single .38-caliber bullet. The excitement was short-lived: Within two days the State Department told the organization to remove the gun blueprint for possible violation of arms export laws—though not before the file had been downloaded over 100,000 times. —D.J.D.