A federal judge in Washington, in a mass-litigation matter tied to online file-sharing, has issued a controversial decision that casts a cable giant into what it terms a big, onerous situation. This case concerns three film production companies, Call of the Wild Movie LLC, Maverick Entertainment Group Inc. and Donkeyball Movie. They filed separate complaints targeting thousands of individuals, who, the firms say, illegally traded copyrighted movies on BitTorrent. According to TorrentFreak, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, in her ruling, essentially brushed off procedural objections, jurisdictional concerns and First Amendment arguments, allowing the companies to pursue what some have termed “mass-suing” of individuals it calls pirates.

Time Warner found itself caught between the plaintiffs and thousands of anonymous Internet customers when the companies demanded names and information on users from the cable giant and net service provider.

In her opinion, Howell states: “Time Warner claims that the subpoenas issued to it in each of the three cases should be quashed due to the undue burden that Time Warner faces with compliance. Alternatively, Time Warner argues that the subpoenas should be substantially modified to require production of the requested information on a schedule that would likely take about three years. All are cases in which copyright owners of separate movies allege that their copyrights are being infringed in the same manner. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that varying numbers of defendants, who are currently unnamed, are illegally downloading and distributing copyrighted works using a file-sharing protocol called BitTorrent.”

As a result of the decision, Time Warner will have to comply with expanded subpoena requests. The judge even extended the original per-month limit agreed to by Time Warner and the plaintiffs, opening up subpoena requests beyond a 28 IP address limit mutually agreed upon by the parties in the dispute, reported Nate Anderson for Ars Technica. The cable giant now will be swamped, to say the least, with thousands of subpoena requests, as Howell wrote, “the Court in each case granted plaintiffs leave to subpoena Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to compel production of the names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, and Media Access Control numbers associated with the alleged infringing IP addresses that the plaintiffs identified as engaging in infringing distribution of their respective movies. File-sharers are engaged in expressive activity, on some level, when they share files on BitTorrent, and their First Amendment rights must be considered.” Howell also said the “First Amendment right to anonymity in this context does not shield them from allegations of copyright infringement.”

To add to the complexity of this case, critics have taken note that Howell has received $105,000 from a recording industry group for lobbying work against file sharing when a lawyer at Stroz Friedberg LLC.