Some useful US context on mass piracy lawsuits


One of the most striking things about the move by new company Movie Rights Group to start targeting thousands of Australians for allegedly illegally downloading copyrighted films is that it came out of the blue. Many people won’t know what to make of the issue, given that Australia doesn’t have a history of this kind of behaviour. But the United States does.

Over the past week or so since the company’s actions were revealed, a number of readers have forwarded me several insightful articles detailing the history of similar companies in the US. And the picture they paint of this kind of behaviour is quite disturbing.

An article by Wired in March this year makes it clear that for the new breed of organisations devoted to stopping copyright infringement on the Internet, enforcing their clients’ rights is not the prime objective. Making as much profit as possible from the issue is. From the article:

“Welcome to the future of Hollywood, or at least the less glittery outskirts of Tinsel Town that produce art films, exploitation flicks and porn. Over the past year, small-budget film producers have nearly perfected a slick, courtroom-based business strategy that’s targeted more than 130,000 suspected movie downloaders.”

“In contrast to the the RIAA’s much-criticized and now-abandoned war against music pirates — which targeted 20,000 downloaders in six years — the movie lawsuits appear to have been designed from the start as for-profit endeavor, not a as a deterrent to piracy.”

The article paints a picture of organisations almost building copyright enforcement actions into the business model for producing films. The legal mechanisms for targeting alleged file-sharers are automated as far as possible; plaintiffs are entitled to settle and pay a ‘fine’ in a similarly automated process; and many will simply do so, having little to no knowledge of the broader legal debate.

As in Australia with Movie Rights Group, the chief legal method which the copyright enforcement groups are relying on is mass-subpoenas. In a 2010 lawsuit filed by one of the more high-profile organisations, known as the US Copyright Group, a Washington District Judge approved subpoenas relating to more than a thousand Time Warner Cable customers.

Another article published by Arstechnica in 2010 lays out a timeline of such cases, dating back to January 2010 and detailing the standard modus operandi:

“The model couldn’t be simpler: find an indie filmmaker; convince the production company to let you sue individual “John Does” for no charge; send out subpoenas to reveal each Doe’s identity; demand that each person pay $1,500 to $2,500 to make the lawsuit go away; set up a website to accept checks and credit cards; split the revenue with the filmmaker.”

Now, I don’t want to draw too long a bow here. Movie Rights Group has been extremely open with me about their activities in Australia, and I have to give the company credit for that. In addition, we haven’t yet seen what the company’s letters to alleged copyright infringers will look like. It is also possible, indeed, likely, that the company will become involved somehow in the wider industry solution to the issue of online file-sharing which is being discussed by parties including Australia’s major ISPs, the content industry and the Federal Department of the Attorney-General.

But I think what has occurred in the US does sound suspiciously similar to the approach the company is taking in Australia. The same legal approach based on subpoenas. The same independent film studios who’ve got nothing to lose. The same style of web site, promoting the idea that those targeted through legal letters should “settle” the issue.

In the US, civil rights groups, the courts and Internet users themselves have all expressed a great deal of concern about this kind of ‘commercial’ approach to settling issues of copyright infringement. It would be a dangerous thing indeed to start to treat the issue of online copyright infringement as an industry which makes revenues like any other.

The aim here should not be to make astronomical sums from Australians who allegedly pirate content. It should be to find a solid and fair balance between those who produce and own content and those who want to consume it. As many have said before me, suing your customers is never a good idea.

Image credit: Krystle Fleming, royalty free


  1. As I posted in the comments of another article, this is exactly why Movie Rights Group (and others) won’t be actively targetting the original person who put the file online to be shared in the first place, assuming of course it’s not a honeypot to begin with.

    It’s in their best industry for the files to be shared because it gives them more targets to sue or at least come to a settlement arrangement with.

  2. Bit hard for them to target the original uploader when there is a good chance movie rights group are the original uploader….

    As has been said above even i they didn’t upload it they have a financial incentive not to stop this file from being shared as they would then have less people to sue.

    Surely that’s not what protecting copyrights was meant to be about?

    • I doubt they would upload the file themselves. Doing so would expose them to way too much trouble if it was discovered. It would essentially be entrapment.

      • Did the IInet have an AFACT connection actively participating in file sharing and in this same way acting to trap individuals?

  3. Well considering these copyright trolls have seen fit to appoint themselves as the police the jury the judge and the debt collector i doubt they fear being outed for uploading a file.

    They have no intention of ever going to court so the methods they use will never be scrutinized by the courts.

  4. I’m just waiting now for some other lawyer to see the dollar signs in offering to defend people against these forms of extorsion.

    I’d love to see someone like anonymous hack their payment site to send payments directly to some kiddies charity.

  5. “a Washington District Judge approved subpoenas relating to more than a thousand Time Warner Cable customers”

    Do we do that in Australia? Is a judge ever likely to approve this, given the current status of the iinet case?

    If there is no subpoena (again, is that the right term in oz?) can’t recipients safely ignore Movie Rights groups communications?

    • Movie Right Group can’t even contact users without the subpoena. The subpoena is given to the ISP to force them to hand over the names & addresses of users — without it, all Movie Rights Group have is a list of IP addresses.

      I’m also interested to know whether a judge would allow them to subpoena 9,000 names & addresses. We have much stricter privacy laws than the US for one, and for two, I can’t imagine you’d be able to successfully convince a judge you were actually planning to sue all 9,000 people.

  6. What if I run a limited VPS for anyone to use for free to do as they want, why? because I dont really care, the shared system is jailed and Ive bandwidth and allowence to spare

  7. It’s easy to make it go away …

    Everyone that gets round one of the “letters”, just don’t settle … represent yourselves or get your lawschool friends / family to help, or if there are any egotistical lawyers out there, help out on the first round and make a name for yourselves!


  8. i’m so going to download this film, and then delete it.

    Is it a breach of copyright if I don’t watch?

  9. Sounds a lot like the patent trolls now famous in the US… they have the best stuff there!

  10. It is also possible, indeed, likely, that the company will become involved somehow in the wider industry solution to the issue of online file-sharing which is being discussed by parties including Australia’s major ISPs, the content industry and the Federal Department of the Attorney-General.

    In which way do you think these guys will become involved in the wider industry solution?

  11. Just by a copy of the DVD of the movie, and say you were getting an electronic backup copy. That’s allowed under medium-shifting provisions.

    • The problem is that they don’t care if you downloaded it as the damages of that maybe $30, its that as you downloaded it from a torrent which you upload from as well. you then have helped distribute it to 9000 other people. 9000 x $30 is what they see as the damage you have caused.

  12. These ‘people’ MUST be defied.

    And we must KEEP defying them.

    They’ll not get a red-cent out of me, under ANY circumstances.

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