Commentary

Group Sues 20,000 Web Users For Downloading Indie Films

In 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America embarked on an expensive, ultimately futile campaign to end piracy by suing individuals who allegedly shared music files on peer-to-peer services.

The RIAA famously brought cases against single mothers, children as young as 12 and, in at least one case, someone who was deceased. Many of the 18,000-plus people who were sued paid four figures to settle the charges. But even with the settlements, the litigation initiative cost the RIAA far more than it took in, generated enormous bad publicity, and did nothing to stem the record industry's losses.

All in all, the effort was largely seen as a colossal failure. In December of 2008, the RIAA said it would shift strategies and stop bringing new cases against non-commercial music sharers.

But none of that history is stopping an outfit called US Copyright Group from attempting to replicate the RIAA's campaign. The Hollywood Reporterreported this week that the group has commenced litigation against 20,000 anonymous Web users who allegedly downloaded independent movies like Uwe Boll's "Far Cry." What's more, complaints against an additional 30,000 Web users are in the works.

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The Reporter says that lawyers at the US Copyright Group are taking the cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning that they will take a percentage of whatever they can recover from individual defendants as a fee, while the plaintiffs won't have to pay hourly rates.

If the US Copyright Group thinks it's going to get rich through this plan, it should think again. There are numerous reasons why commencing litigation against 50,000 individual Web users might not be as easy as it must appear. First of all, to bring a lawsuit the attorneys will need to convince judges to order Internet service providers to disclose the names of their users. (One ISP has apparently turned over that information on its own, but the others say they won't do so without a court order, according to the Reporter.)

Obtaining names tied to IP addresses won't necessarily be easy. Consider, in December of 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner in Boston rejected the RIAA's request to force Boston University to disclose identities associated with IP addresses.

If the group obtains names of individuals, its next step will be to ask users to pay up to settle the litigation. Some people might agree to do so, but others will undoubtedly insist on their day in court. Proving that particular users actually downloaded the films won't be a slam dunk.

Besides, even if the US Copyright Group can prove that particular users infringed on copyright, it's not clear how much in damages can be collected. The statute provides for a minimum of $750 and a maximum of $150,000 per infringement, but some defendants have argued that damages that high are unconstitutional. Additionally, one federal judge -- Michael Davis in Minnesota -- has already slashed a damage award in one case to $2,250 per track.

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