D.C. Circuit Hands Prenda Law a Stinging Defeat

Rhett Pardon

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court yesterday rebuffed Prenda Law's attempt to  subpoena identifying information on more than 1,000 allegedly illegal porn downloads.

The decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is a stinging one for the copyright troll law firm and is the first appellate ruling on key tactics employed by them to tilt the playing field.

“It is 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,” U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote. “AF Holdings clearly abused the discovery process.”

Tatel and two other judges ruled that AF Holdings is not entitled to contact information for people whose IP addresses were linked to BitTorrent downloads of the film “Popular Demand” because few of them live in the District of Columbia, where the lawsuit was filed.

As a result, the panel said it’s unlikely any connection exists among all of the Internet addresses subject to the subpoena.

"To paraphrase an analogy offered by amicus counsel at oral argument, two BitTorrent users who download the same file months apart are like two individuals who play at the same blackjack table at different times," the 16-page ruling said. "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."

Tatel criticized counsel from Prenda Law, noting that a judge in another case, Los Angeles federal jurist Otis Wright, had described it as a “porno-trolling collective” and that the firm “appears to have disbanded and then reconstituted itself in a similar form." AF Holdings is represented by Paul Duffy, who works for Prenda Law.

"[S]ometimes individuals seek to manipulate judicial procedures to serve their own improper ends. This case calls upon us to evaluate — and put a stop to — one litigant’s attempt to do just that.”

The appeal was brought by several ISPs — Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and affiliates — with amicus support from Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, the ACLU of the Nation's Capitol, Public Citizen and Public Knowledge.

The ruling in AF Holdings LLC vs. Cox Communications, 12-7135, is a key one because it likely will discourage copyright infringement suits against large numbers of defendants seeking to corner them through embarrassment or costly litigation into paying settlements without establishing a sound legal basis, according to the EFF.

"Prenda, and other groups like it, wanted to use the courts' subpoena power to identify Internet subscribers, then shake them down for $2,000-$4,000 'settlements,'" the EFF's Mitch Stoltz said. "They assuredly didn’t want to invest the time and expense needed to actually figure out who, if anyone, likely infringed a copyright. Trolls use court processes not to enforce their rights or to protect a legitimate business, but to make a profitable business out of groundless threats and intimidation."

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