Commentary

Tomorrow's Showdown: Can Filmmaker Unmask 4,500 Alleged Downloaders At Once?

Time Warner and digital rights advocates are preparing to face off in court on Wednesday against a copyright enforcement outfit that represents independent filmmakers.

The law firm U.S. Copyright Group is attempting to sue more than 4,500 Web users who allegedly used BitTorrent to download unauthorized copies of Uwe Boll's "Far Cry." The U.S. Copyright Group says it traced the downloads to specific IP addresses, but doesn't know the users' names.

Therefore, the group filed one lawsuit against thousands of John Doe defendants, and then attempted to subpoena information from Internet service providers that would identify the users.

Time Warner opposes the subpoena, saying that it doesn't have the manpower to easily dig up the information requested by the plaintiffs. The cable company also argues that the U.S. Copyright Group shouldn't have filed one massive case against all of the defendants, but should have filed individual lawsuits against the anonymous users. The cost of filing a case is $350, so suing all 4,500 people individually would have increased the litigation costs considerably.

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Earlier this month, a coalition of digital rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU and Public Citizen also opposed the filmmaker's request to subpoena thousands of records with a single court filing. (Public Citizen is representing MediaPost in an unrelated matter.)

"There is little doubt that plaintiff's joinder of more than 4,500 defendants in this single action is improper and runs the tremendous risk of creating unfairness and denying individual justice to those sued," the groups argue.

They also rightly argue that Time Warner and other ISPs should inform users about the subpoenas so that people have the opportunity to contest them through counsel.

The only way individual Web users will have any hope of preserving their rights is if an ISP informs them about the court proceedings in advance. At a minimum, courts should require ISPs to alert users about the subpoenas before ordering the information be handed over.

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