By: Zander Walker, Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Vol. 20 Staffer
Since 2010, there has been a measurable shift in copyright litigation away from infringement deterrence and towards monetization. As recently as 2001, fictitious defendants (often referred to as “John Doe” defendants) were named in only 4% of cases, according to a recent review of copyright litigation. By 2016, John Doe defendants were named in approximately 40% of all copyright litigation. One single plaintiff, Malibu Media, accounted for approximately 60% of John Doe cases in the 2015–16 period, totaling more than 2,600 lawsuits. These cases disproportionately resolve by voluntary dismissal and virtually never make it to trial. Because of their tendency to pursue legal action for improper or harassing reasons, these plaintiffs have been called “copyright trolls”
Generally, copyright trolls follow a fairly consistent format. The troll obtains a large number of IP addresses associated with a BitTorrent swarm and names those IP addresses as John Doe defendants in one or more complaints for copyright infringement. The troll then files a subpoena for identifying information (e.g., account holder’s name, billing address, etc.) corresponding to each IP address (a process referred to a “unmasking” an IP address). This identifying information allows the troll to send a settlement letter meant to scare the recipient—they typically state the maximum statutory damages of $150,000 and then offer to settle for a fraction of that value. Normally, the troll offers to settle for only a few thousand dollars, though these settlements can occasionally reach sums in the tens of thousands of dollars. Malibu Media, for example, normally obtains settlements valued between $2,000 and $30,000, according to a New Yorker interview with their attorney.
This format was pioneered by two alumni of the University of Minnesota Law School, John Steele and Paul Hansmeier (class of 2006 and 2007, respectively). Prenda Law acquired rights to a number of pornographic films and produced several of their own as well, engaging in thousands of lawsuits for alleged copyright infringement. They attracted notoriety for their unethical, and sometimes illegal, settlement tactics. Steele and Hansmeier were known for seeding torrents of their content in order to induce copyright infringement, and would name IP addresses from their own BitTorrent swarm as defendants. In addition to threats of legal action, Steele and Hansmeier would use the nature of the allegedly infringed content as a source of social blackmail, threatening to share the allegations with friends, family, or employers unless the settlement offer was accepted. Steele and Hansmeier made roughly $6 million through these coerced settlements before they were indicted on criminal charges of fraud and money laundering. Both have pleaded guilty.
Although Prenda Law is now defunct, other copyright trolls have taken their place. Malibu Media alone has filed more than 1,700 lawsuits in the first half of 2018. European nations have begun to crack down on copyright trolls by limiting the ability of trolls to unmask IP addresses, partly the result of lawsuits filed by several large European internet service providers to keep their customers’ information private. Though some US judges have also begun denying these subpoenas, a proposed law is poised to give copyright trolls an administrative bypass to the traditional judicial process for obtaining a subpoena. In October 2017, Rep. Jeffries (N.Y.) introduced the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2017 (“CASE Act”), a bill designed to expediate the copyright dispute system for small-entity copyright holders by creating a “Copyright Claims Board” (“CCB”) within the Copyright Office. The CCB would possess broad adjudicatory powers so that it could take on low-value copyright infringement cases. However, section 1405(z) of the Act would allow the CCB to issue subpoenas capable of unmasking John Doe defendants and would grant it authority to promulgate its own rules governing the issuance of those subpoenas. Thus, a copyright troll could potentially utilize the CCB to identify victims in lieu of a subpoena from a federal court. Proponents of the CASE Act claim that copyright trolls would be deterred from filing claims with the CCB because the Act caps damages on CCB claims at $30,000. However, this statutory cap still far exceeds many settlements reached by copyright trolls, meaning it would likely have a minimal effect, if any, on deterring improper litigation. In effect, the CASE Act lacks sufficient safeguards to prevent the CCB from functioning like a “fast-track” for copyright trolls. The House Judiciary Committee has held several hearings on the CASE Act but has not yet put the Act to a vote. If the Act is enacted in the future, hopefully it is without section 1405(z).