By Sanne Specht
A federal judge last week took aim at “reverse class action lawsuits” while dismissing a Los Angeles-based movie company’s lawsuit that claimed dozens of Jackson County “John Doe” defendants had pirated one of its movies off the Internet.
Salem attorney Carl Crowell in February filed a lawsuit on behalf of Voltage Pictures LLC in U.S. District Court in Medford, seeking up to $180,000 in damages from each of 34 defendants accused of pirating the 2012 movie “Maximum Conviction” off the Internet.
Statewide, Voltage alleged, nearly 600 people had participated in copyright infringement.
The company sought $30,000 for the alleged infringement, and an additional $150,000 from each defendant in statutory damages should there be a finding of willful conduct.
U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken last week dismissed the case, ruling the movie company had unfairly lumped the plaintiffs together in a “reverse class action suit” to save more than $200,000 in court costs, and possibly intimidate the plaintiffs into paying $7,500 for allegedly illegally viewing a $10 video.
Voltage sought a jury trial, alleging the unnamed defendants used their computers to illegally copy and distribute the 2012 movie “Maximum Conviction,” which was directed by Keoni Waxman and stars Steven Seagal and Steve Austin. Voltage said the unnamed local defendants resided in Medford, Talent, Central Point, Shady Cove, Klamath Falls and Brookings.
The defendants were not identified by name at the time of the initial filing because Voltage had only their Internet protocol addresses. Voltage later subpoenaed the defendants’ Internet service providers, which include Charter Communications, Clearwire Corp., CenturyLink, Embarq Corp. and Frontier Corp., to obtain the defendants’ names.
“… the manner in which plaintiff is pursuing the Doe defendants has resulted in $123,850 savings in filing fees alone,” Aiken wrote, adding that defendants were being subjected to a “lack of fundamental fairness.”
Voltage’s suit stated the video industry has tried to capitalize on Internet technology and reduce costs to consumers through legitimate and legal venues such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. But, it maintained, people continue to “steal motion pictures and undermine the efforts of creators through their illegal copying and distribution of motion pictures” through peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, which connects computers through its system.
Whenever people download the BitTorrent application, they become both a user and a distributor, the suit alleges.
Aiken agreed technologies such as BitTorrent are “anonymous and stealthy tools” that allow for large-scale copyright infringement. But she said not every defendant named in Voltage’s suit had equal culpability. Some had unsecured IP addresses, others allowed only downloading and prohibited uploading, while others were associated with institutional accounts such as businesses or schools with numerous users, she said.
Voltage’s suit states it is a “common misunderstanding that people involved in motion pictures are already wealthy” and that the perception is that “the end product, such as a DVD, only costs very little to make.”
In fact, the suit says, there are “countless expenses and labors,” including writers, staff, construction workers and others involved in making the final product.
Aiken said cases such as the one filed by Voltage allow plaintiffs to “use the courts’ subpoena powers to troll for quick and easy settlements.” A sample demand letter sent to defendants associated with IP addresses threatens severe punitive damages and a not-so-subtle implication that liability is a foregone conclusion, Aiken said.
The letter asks $7,500 as a settlement offer, and said that amount would increase up to $150,000 if the recipient did not agree to prompt payment. It also makes threats against attempts to delete files, asserting costs associated with such actions will be added to the assessment. Aiken characterized the letter as an exorbitant extortion tactic.
“Accordingly, plaintiff’s tactic in these BitTorrent cases appears to not seek to litigate against all the Doe defendants, but to utilize the court’s subpoena powers to drastically reduce litigation costs and obtain, in effect, $7,500 for its product, which in the case of Maximum Conviction, can be obtained for $9.00 on Amazon for the Blue-Ray/DVD combo or $3.99 for a digital rental,” Aiken wrote.
Crowell refused comment to the Mail Tribune in February and did not return calls Friday.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.