Puzzling privacy analysis in decision to unmask anonymous accused copyright infringers

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Plaintiff porn company sued an unknown bittorrent user (identified as John Doe) alleging that defendant had downloaded and distributed more than 20 of plaintiff’s films. Plaintiff asked the court for leave to serve a subpoena on Optimum Online – the ISP associated with defendant’s IP address – prior to the Rule 26(f) conference. (As we have recently discussed, leave of court is required to start discovery before the Rule 26(f) conference, but a plaintiff cannot have that conference unless it knows who the defendant is.) Plaintiff already knew defendant’s IP address. It needed to serve the subpoena on the ISP to learn defendant’s real name and physical address so it could serve him with the complaint.

The court went through a well-established test to determine that good cause existed for allowing the expedited discovery. Drawing heavily on the case of Sony Music Entm’t, Inc. v. Does 1-40, 326 F. Supp. 2d 556 (S.D.N.Y. 2004), the court evaluated:

(1) the concreteness of the plaintiff’s showing of a prima facie claim of copyright infringement,

(2) the specificity of the discovery request,

(3) the absence of alternative means to obtain the subpoenaed information,

(4) the need for the subpoenaed information to advance the claim, and

(5) the objecting party’s expectation of privacy.

The court’s conclusions were not surprising on any of these elements. But it’s discussion under the fifth point, namely, the defendant’s expectation of privacy, was puzzling, and the court may have missed an important point.

It looked to the recent case involving Dred Pirate Roberts and Silk Road, namely, United States v. Ulbricht, 858 F.3d 71 (2d Cir. 2017). Leaning on the Ulbricht case, the court concluded that defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the sought-after information (name and physical address) because there is no expectation of privacy in “subscriber information provided to an internet provider,” such as an IP address, and such information has been “voluntarily conveyed to third parties.”

While the court does not misquote the Ulbricht case, one is left to wonder why it would use that case to support discovery of the unknown subscriber’s name and physical address. At issue in Ulbricht was whether the government violated Dred Pirate Roberts’s Fourth Amendment rights when it obtained the IP address he was using. In this case, however, the plaintiff already knew the IP address from its forensic investigations. The sought-after information here was the name and physical address, not the IP address he used.

So looking to Ulbricht to say that the Doe defendant had no expectation of privacy in his IP address does nothing to shed information on the kind of expectation of privacy, if any, he should have had on his real name and physical address.

The court’s decision ultimately is not incorrect, but it did not need to consult with Ulbricht. As in the Sony Music case from which it drew the 5-part analysis, and in many other similar expedited discovery cases, the court could have simply found there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the sought-after information, because the ISP’s terms of service put the subscriber on notice that it will turn over the information to third parties in certain circumstances like the ones arising in this case.

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 2017 WL 5001474 (D.Conn., November 1, 2017)

About the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.