Two California pornography companies are attempting to sue 140 Maryland residents for unlawfully downloading and distributing their adult films.
Patrick Collins Inc. and Third Degree Films have one problem—the California companies don't know the names of the people they want to sue for copyright infringement.
But two of Maryland’s largest Internet service providers—Comcast and Verizon—have been ordered by a federal judge in Greenbelt to turn over the personal identities of 22 subscribers known to Patrick Collins Inc. only by numeric Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.
The anonymous subscribers in that case are located throughout the state: Towson, Annapolis, Sykesville, Westminster, Rockville, Columbia, Bowie, Reisterstown, Parkville, Frederick, La Plata, Germantown and Potomac.
Maryland is the latest state to be the target of such litigation. The companies and others have filed copyright infringement lawsuits in several states armed only with IP addresses of people they allege have unlawfully been file-sharing their movies using BitTorrent technology.
It’s a legal strategy involving copyright protection pioneered when the Recording Industry Association of America pursued the identities behind IP addresses of customers who were illegally file sharing music off of Napster, said Julie Samuels, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has helped fight against recent lawsuits from pornography companies in other states.
Patrick Collins Inc. filed its case in June against 22 "John Does" it alleges illegally downloaded a film called "Cuties 2." Third Degree Films filed its case last week against 118 "John Does" who it claims downloaded "Illegal Ass 2." It is also asking a federal judge to order Comcast, Verizon and other Internet service providers to identify the accused customers.
U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr.'s order states that Patrick Collins Inc. "allegedly owns exclusive distribution rights to a pornographic movie that is being illegally distributed over the Internet by peer-to-peer file-sharing technology, BitTorrent. Plaintiff claims to know the Internet Protocol address ('IP address') of each infringing defendant, but not their real names, addresses, or other identifying information."
Williams' July order requires Comcast and Verizon to provide that information so that Patrick Collins can then take legal action against each subscriber.
“The most important thing for us is that we treat our customers’ privacy with the utmost seriousness,” said Charlie Douglas, Comcast spokesman. “We don’t just hand stuff over without due process and reaching out to let the customer know that we’re being ordered by a judge.”
He said Comcast has alerted customers identified in the lawsuit about the legal action.
Critics of such legal action call the studios in these lawsuits “copyright trolls.” Critics contend the tactic is nothing more than a way to extract quick cash settlements by threatening to associate people with public exposure in a pornography lawsuit.
Legal documents filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, however, indicate a possible shift in strategy by the studios, Samuels said. The studios have been taking legal action against thousands of people at once in other states. But doing so has resulted in some cases being thrown out either because some subscribers don't live in the states where the lawsuits have been filed or because the studios have not shown that such a large class of defendants have been conspiring together.
The cases in Maryland are far more narrow, targeting just 22 people in one case and 118 in the second, Samuels said.
So far in the Patrick Collins case, the company agreed to voluntarily dismiss its allegations against one of the two subscribers who have hired lawyers to fight the lawsuit. Patrick Collins Inc.'s lawyer, Jon A. Hoppe of Largo, could not be reached for comment.
Attorney Eric J. Menhart with CyberLaw firm in Washington D.C. represented the John Doe whose case was voluntarily dismissed by the company.
Menhart said Patrick Collins Inc. agreed to dismiss his client's case because allowing Judge Williams to rule on the dismissal motion could threaten the company's case against all the other subscribers named as co-defendants in the case.
"They cut their losses by dismissing one case," he said. "These cases are happening all over the place. ... We're seeing anywhere from 20 to 200 [defendants]. So far in Maryland I haven't seen big, big numbers. But that can always change."