Can you sue the nameless and faceless? In the entertainment industry’s most recent quest to curb internet piracy, a new solution — does this sound familiar? — to sue “Joe Doe” has arisen: In a recent high-profile hijacking of the new, Dumb and Dumber To film, thousands of John Does in Oregon are being sued for copyright infringement after illegally downloading the newest installment of the franchise.
Copyright cases against the anonymous are controversial. Most commonly, plaintiffs move to subpoena the otherwise private identifying information from internet service providers. Previous cases used a mass-joinder approach where plaintiffs attempted to “stuff as many defendants into a case as possible.” Actions to curb infringement are particularly important in cases like the Expendables 3, where the film has not yet been released but is being currently illegally distributed online or is available for download on torrent sites.
The cyberworld also has been plagued by so-called trolling episodes, in which parties, porn makers themselves or others who buy up rights, file mass actions against ISPs to learn the names of those alleged to have illegally downloaded blue materials — they’re offered a settlement to protect their identities, if they will pay a fee, say, of several thousand dollars.
While copyright protection is important, others are worried about the potential intrusion on the right to privacy that may be at stake if internet providers are legally compelled to divulge the names, addresses, and search history content of its subscribers. Some courts have even questioned whether having a specific IP address, even when demarcated as an infringing address, is sufficient grounds to create legal liability. (Consider what happens when the babysitter or a neighbor kid pops on that home computer and illegally downloads recordings or other copyrighted materials).
While rarely making a significant profit from the litigation, film producers and copyright holders use law suits to deter other potential infringers. One producer stated that the day after they announced their 20,000 lawsuits against infringers of the Hurt Locker, the film’s rights holders saw infringement fall by 40 percent. Thus even if the copyright holders do not ever uncover the names or identities of the anonymous infringes, the threat alone may be enough to prevent infringement. On the other hand, this tactic can create its own backlash, too.