Judge Rules ISPs Aren't 'People' in BitTorrent Lawsuits

CHICAGO — In a move that some industry watchers say may be the beginning of the end of massive “quick settlement” BitTorrent lawsuits, U.S. Judge Harold Baker has ruled that IP addresses aren't people and blocked Canadian adult company VPR Internationale from subpoenaing ISPs of alleged copyright infringers.

In the case, Montreal-based VPR Internationale vs. Does 1-1,017, Baker ruled that that IP addresses don’t equal a person, thus their private information is not accessible and the court has no jurisdiction over the Does.

He further commented that the expedited discovery procedures in adult entertainment types of cases could obstruct a “fair” legal process.

Illustrating his decision, Baker used the recent Buffalo FBI raid where people in a child porn case were victims of the real offenders piggybacking on their Wi-Fi’s unsecured router as an example of defendants who could be completely innocent.

Baker noted, “The embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether VPR has competent evidence to prove its case…the imprimatur of this court will not be used to advance a ‘fishing expedition by means of a perversion of the purpose and intent’ of class actions.”

In its motion VPR sought physical locations for 1,017 unidentified IP addresses that included a number of universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Columbia and the University of Minnesota, as well as corporations and utility companies.

But attorney John Steele of Chicago law firm Steele Hansmeier, a BitTorrent litigator who brought the case before Baker, told XBIZ that although he respects the judge’s decision, he disagrees with the ruling and maintained that this represents only one setback.

Steele said that in many cases the perpetrator is unknown, so there’s always controversy.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur of Chicago denied Steele’s attempts to gain settlements from Doe defendants around the country and stated that he had “abused the litigation system in more than one way.”

Steele however pointed out that his firm has more than 50 such cases — 46 of which have been given the green light by judges. What’s more, Steele said in the last two weeks he has filed nearly a dozen more copyright infringement suits in a number of states, the most recent for Hard Drive Productions in Illinois that named 123 John Doe defendants in which he was granted a motion to expedite discovery.

The attorney also suggested that the reports decrying the end of BitTorrent suits might simply be a matter of perception and distortion of what’s really going on. “This may be wishful thinking on the part of pirates. Or something created by those who don’t like what we’re doing and want to create an aura of what we’re doing isn’t working,” Steele said.

“Ninety five percent of our cases have gone through in the discovery process, with one or two being denied. In April only one out of 20 was denied and subpoenas are being served,” Steele said. He further noted that two of his early clients — Millenium PGA and Lightspeed Media — have seen a dramatic decrease in pirated content.

But criticism abounds.  According to reports, the pressure on alleged copyright infringers and resulting lawsuits  — that has numbered more than 100,000 in the U.S. alone — has been compared to extortion and has been viewed as a favorite practice of a number of lawyers who see it as a fast track to money because of the proliferation of adult piracy.

And BitTorrent watchdog TorrentFreak points out that although Baker’s logic applies to all ongoing BitTorrent lawsuits, the matter takes on a different spin when the alleged offense involves hardcore material. Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School noted “that whether you’re guilty or not, you look like a suspect.”

The ruling is seen by some legal and adult industry watchers as a setback for the copyright holders in mass-BitTorrent lawsuits.

Texas lawyer Robert Cashman, who represents several defendants in similar lawsuits, said that the ruling can be a potential game changer.

Cashman told TorrentFreak,“We may have just seen the order that may end all future John Doe lawsuits,”  and wrote in his blog, “I have always been saying that one day the courts will start catching on to what is going on in these cases. One day, the judges will find a way to put a stop to these John Doe cases once and for all. I have no doubt this ruling is the first of many to come, where the judges stop the plaintiff in their tracks by denying them access to the ISPs’ subscriber records before a single subpoena is issued.”

But Steele disagrees.

“The issue isn’t over. There are other mechanisms we’ll use with the appellate courts.  People steal stuff and our clients want us to pursue these people,“ Steele said.