Recently, federal judges in both Texas and Illinois have dismissed mass peer-to-peer file sharing lawsuits, in which hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people across the United States are brought together in one case and accused of downloading the same film. Prosecuting attorneys and film studios were advised that the cases would need to be filed with the district courts in which the defendants reside, as downloading a file using the same application is not a strong enough relationship to establish jurisdiction. But a Washington DC District Court Judge disagrees.
Judge Beryl Howell has ruled that the plaintiffs not only meet the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in order to join the defendants together in one case, but that the action somehow actually benefits all involved – even the defendants who may have to deal with a lawsuit thousands of miles from their homes on the basis of a matching IP address.
The following is excerpted from a 42-page decision issued by Judge Howell on Thursday, in response to motions to quash by ISP Time Warner in mass copyright litigation initiated by Call of the Wild Movie LLC, Maverick Entertainment Group, and Donkeyball Movie LLC.:
“Given the administrative burden of simply obtaining sufficient identifying information to properly name and serve alleged infringers, it is highly unlikely that the plaintiffs could protect their copyrights in a cost-effective manner. Indeed, Time Warner urges the Court to sever the defendants for this very reason. Time Warner asserts that, if joinder were disallowed, its burden of complying with subpoenas would be diminished because the plaintiffs would not be able to proceed against all of the putative defendants individually At this procedural juncture, the plaintiffs have met the requirements of permissive joinder under Rule 20(a)(2). The putative defendants are not prejudiced but likely benefited by joinder, and severance would debilitate the plaintiffs’ efforts to protect their copyrighted materials and seek redress from the putative defendants who have allegedly engaged in infringing activity.”
The cost of re-filing such cases was a rather expensive endeavor for the prosecution. Since attorneys are usually licensed to practice law within one or two states, a network of cooperating law offices needed to be established, and the fees for filing cases individually would add up quickly.
Judge Howell’s decision now allows cases to proceed further before defendants are identified and notified of the charges against them, a civil rights concern that has been raised repeatedly by the Electronic Freedom Foundation in these cases.
“Unlike the normal case, in which a defendant is notified of early case developments and can intervene to protect his or her interests (such as by opposing a plaintiff’s request to send out subpoenas), the Does in [mass copyright] cases are unlikely to have any idea a lawsuit has been filed, much less that the plaintiff is seeking their identity,” the EFF explains. “Appointing an attorney ad litem for limited purposes is one way to address that problem and help ensure that the Does receive the same constitutional protections that must apply to any defendant, in any litigation.“
The judge also ruled that there should no longer be a limit of 28 IP address identifications per month that the prosecution can request from Time Warner. The limit was currently implemented to ease financial burdens on the ISP.
This is a step back for efforts by the EFF to fight for a case structure that would uphold the due process rights of John Doe defendants. The decision, however, merely conflicts with others recently made. It does not overturn them. Civil rights groups will likely not let this go easily.