Category: Electronic Discovery (page 1 of 4)

Finding out who infringed copyright – identifying infringers

Need information about finding out who infringed your copyright? This video may provide some guidance. 

Copyright owners of video and photos may find their works have been copied and posted somewhere else online and therefore need to take action for copyright infringement. But the first challenge may be to identify who the unknown defendant is. This video discusses (1) filing a copyright infringement case in federal court, (2) showing good cause for early discovery to identify the unknown alleged infringer, and (3) sending subpoenas.  Finding out who infringed copyright can be a difficult task. 

The federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction for copyright infringement cases. That means a state court will not be able to hear a copyright infringement matter. A copyright infringement case filed in state court will get dismissed because state courts cannot hear cases that are exclusively the subject of federal jurisdiction.

When a party has filed suit, it usually knows who the defendant is. But sometimes it is necessary to file suits against “John Doe” defendants. In the online copyright infringement context, the copyright owner will need to take early discovery. This requires persuading the federal judge that good cause exists for taking early discovery. To show good cause, a party will need to show that an actual person has infringed, that it has taken as many steps possible to unmask the anonymous copyright infringer, and that its copyright infringement case is strong enough to survive a motion for summary judgment. 

Once these things are shown, the court will allow the plaintiff to send subpoenas to the host of the infringing content and to the internet service providers associated with the IP address that uploaded the copyright infringing content. Then, if the plaintiff is successful in unmasking the unknown defendant, the copyright infringement case can actually begin .

More information: Identifying unknown online copyright infringers: court gives guidance

finding out who infringed copyright

Identifying unknown online copyright infringers: guidance

unmasking online copyright infringers

A recent case addressed the problem of identifying unknown online copyright infringers. Plaintiff sued some unknown “John Doe” defendants who infringed plaintiff’s copyrights. To keep the lawsuit moving forward, plaintiff needed to serve the complaint on the defendants. But this presented a challenge, since plaintiff did not know to whom it should deliver the documents. So plaintiff filed a motion with the court, asking for permission to send interrogatories and to take depositions that would help unmask the anonymous infringers. Plaintiffs sought to get information from parties including PayPal, Cloudflare and various domain name registrars. The court’s response provides guidance to parties seeking to learn the identities of unknown parties.

To identify unknown online copyright infringers: early discovery

The rules of procedure in federal court do not permit discovery requests until the parties have had an initial conference with each other. But they cannot have that conference if the defendant is unknown. So the plaintiff needs to send discovery requests earlier than what the rules generally allow. It needs the court’s permission to do so.

A court will not permit early discovery in every instance. But courts have made exceptions, permitting limited discovery after a plaintiff files the complaint to permit the plaintiff to learn the identifying facts necessary to permit service on the defendant. Courts allow these requests upon a showing of good cause.

What constitutes good cause for early discovery?

This court applied the three part test for good cause set out more than 20 years ago in the case of Columbia Ins. Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573 (N.D. Cal. 1999). The party seeking early discovery should be able to:

  • Identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the court can determine that the defendant is a real person or entity who could be sued in federal court;
  • Identify all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant; and
  • Establish to the court’s satisfaction that the suit against defendant could withstand a motion to dismiss.

Early discovery was appropriate in this case

Under the first prong of the test, the court found that plaintiff identified the missing parties with as much clarity as possible. Plaintiff stated that those missing parties were persons or entities, and that those parties had been observed and documented as infringing on plaintiff’s copyrights. Thus, as real persons or entities, those Doe parties could be sued in federal court.

As for the second prong, the only information plaintiff had regarding the defendants was the existence of accounts relating to the operations of the defendants’ websites. Therefore, there were no other measures plaintiff could take to identify the defendants other than to obtain their identifying information from the parties from whom it was sought.

Finally, on the third prong, for identifying unknown copyright infingers, the court found that plaintiff had pled the required elements of direct and contributory copyright infringement. Plaintiff claimed (1) it owned and had registered the copyrighted work at issue in the case; (2) defendants knew of the infringing activity and were conscious of their infringement; and (3) defendants actively participated in this infringement by inducing, causing and contributing to the infringement of plaintiff’s copyrighted work. Since plaintiff had alleged each of these elements properly, this cause of action could withstand a motion to dismiss.

MG Premium Ltd. v. Does, 2020 WL 1675741 (W.D. Wash. April 6, 2020)

Related: 

Plaintiff failed to make key arguments in bid to unmask anonymous online defendants

Plaintiff sued some unknown defendants for breach of contract and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, based on the defendants’ deceptive conduct that tricked some internet users into signing up for plaintiff’s paid services. The unknown defendants would receive affiliate commissions from operating this scheme. This caused reputation problems for plaintiff.

Plaintiff sought early discovery to ascertain the identities of the unknown defendants. The court denied the motion.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not permit a party to seek discovery from the adverse parties in the case until all parties have conducted an initial conference under Rule 26(f). But when the defendants are unknown, that conference cannot take place. So the plaintiff needs to conduct discovery to find out who they are. In situations like these, for the required early discovery to occur and the unknown defendants to be identified (so that the conference can take place), the court must enter an order permitting early discovery.

A court can authorize early discovery to identify unknown defendants if there is good cause. In determining whether there is good cause, courts consider whether the plaintiff:

  • can identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the court can determine that defendant is a real person or entity who could be sued in federal court;
  • has identified all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant; 
  • has articulated claims against defendant that would withstand a motion to dismiss; and 
  • has demonstrated that there is a reasonable likelihood of being able to identify the defendant through discovery such that service of process would be possible.

In this case, the court found that plaintiff failed to identify the defendants with sufficient specificity, and did not demonstrate that each defendant was a real person or entity who would be subject to jurisdiction in the Northern District of California. Plaintiff had not explained why defendants would be subject to the jurisdiction of the court, as defendants’ activities seemed directed at Argentina, and plaintiff’s harm was felt in Argentina and other parts of Latin America. The only apparent connection defendants had with the Northern District of California was that they used domain name services from California companies. Plaintiff provided no authority to suggest this was sufficient to create jurisdiction.

Plaintiff also failed to explain what steps it had taken to locate defendants. Citing to Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573 (N.D. Cal. 1999), the court noted that “[t]his element is aimed at ensuring that plaintiffs make a good faith effort to comply with the requirements of service of process and specifically identifying defendants.” 

In its motion, plaintiff only stated that there were no more practical measures that would permit it to identify the unknown defendants, but did not identify what measures – if any – were taken. For example, plaintiff was apparently able to identify defendants as affiliates, and that a contract existed, giving rise to legal liability. It was therefore not clear why plaintiff was unable to identify defendants based on the contract.

Binbit Argentina, S.A. v. Does 1-25, No. 19-5384, 2019 WL 4645159 (N.D. Cal., September 24, 2019)

See also:

Court labels copyright plaintiff as a troll and shuts down efforts to ID anonymous infringer

When a copyright plaintiff does not know who a particular alleged infringer is, it must first send a subpoena to the ISP assigned the IP address used to commit the alleged infringement. But the rules of procedure do not allow the sending of subpoenas until after the 26(f) conference – a meeting between the plaintiff and defendant (or their lawyers) to discuss the case. A plaintiff cannot have a 26(f) conference if the defendant has not been served with the complaint, and the complaint cannot be served unless the defendant’s identity is known.

So you can see the conundrum. To break out of this not-knowing, plaintiffs in situations like this will ask the court’s help through a motion for leave to take early discovery. That way the plaintiff can learn who the defendant is, serve the complaint, and move the case forward.

In the recent case of Strike 3 Holdings v. Doe, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put a stop to the efforts of a plaintiff that it called a copyright troll right to its face (or at least right in the text of the opinion). The court denied Strike 3’s motion for leave to take early discovery to learn the identity of an unknown BitTorrent user accused of downloading pornography.

The court held that the plaintiff’s request was not specific enough, and the privacy interests of the unknown defendant, together with the social harm of being wrongfully accused of obtaining “particularly prurient pornography” were not outweighed by the trollish plaintiff’s need for the information.

Key to the court’s ruling was the idea that a subpoena in circumstances like this must be able to actually identify a defendant who could be sued. The court noted, however, that

Strike 3 could not withstand a 12(b)(6) motion in this case without resorting to far more intensive discovery machinations sufficiently establishing defendant did the infringing—examining physical evidence (at least the computers, smartphones, and tablets of anyone in the owner’s house, as well as any neighbor or houseguest who shared the Internet), and perhaps even interrogatories, document requests, or depositions. Strike 3’s requested subpoena thus will not—and may never—identify a defendant who could be sued.

The opinion is an entertaining read and conveys the judge’s clear frustration with copyright troll plaintiffs. Below are some of the more memorable quips.

Regarding the flaws of using IP addresses to identify people:

[Plaintiff’s] method [of identifying infringers] is famously flawed: virtual private networks and onion routing spoof IP addresses (for good and ill); routers and other devices are unsecured; malware cracks passwords and opens backdoors; multiple people (family, roommates, guests, neighbors, etc.) share the same IP address; a geolocation service might randomly assign addresses to some general location if it cannot more specifically identify another.

Regarding the public shame of being accused of infringing porn:

… But in many cases, the method is enough to force the Internet service provider (ISP) to unmask the IP address’s subscriber. And once the ISP outs the subscriber, permitting them to be served as the defendant, any future Google search of their name will turn-up associations with the websites Vixen, Blacked, Tushy, and Blacked Raw. The first two are awkward enough, but the latter two cater to even more singular tastes.

How trolls are quick to flee:

Indeed, the copyright troll’s success rate comes not from the Copyright Act, but from the law of large numbers. … These serial litigants drop cases at the first sign of resistance, preying on low-hanging fruit and staying one step ahead of any coordinated defense. They don’t seem to care about whether defendant actually did the infringing, or about developing the law. If a Billy Goat Gruff moves to confront a copyright troll in court, the troll cuts and runs back under its bridge. Perhaps the trolls fear a court disrupting their rinse-wash-and-repeat approach: file a deluge of complaints; ask the court to compel disclosure of the account holders; settle as many claims as possible; abandon the rest.

It’s pretty much extortion:

Armed with hundreds of cut-and-pasted complaints and boilerplate discovery motions, Strike 3 floods this courthouse (and others around the country) with lawsuits smacking of extortion. It treats this Court not as a citadel of justice, but as an ATM. Its feigned desire for legal process masks what it really seeks: for the Court to oversee a high-tech shakedown. This Court declines.

The court’s decision to deny discovery is anything but the rubber stamp approach so many judges in these kinds of cases over the past several years have been accused of employing.

Strike 3 Holdings v. Doe, 2018 WL 6027046 (D.D.C. November 16, 2018)

Court takes into consideration defendant’s privacy in BitTorrent copyright infringement case

Frequent copyright plaintiff Strike 3 Holdings filed a motion with the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota seeking an order allowing Strike 3 to send a subpoena to Comcast, to learn who owns the account used to allegedly infringe copyright. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure created a bootstrapping problem or, as the court called it, a Catch-22, for Strike 3 – it was not able to confer with the unknown Doe defendant as required by Rule 26(f) because it could not identify the defendant, but it could not identify defendant without discovery from Comcast.

The court granted Strike 3’s motion for leave to take early discovery, finding that good cause existed for granting the request, and noting:

  • Strike 3 had stated an actionable claim for copyright infringement,
  • The discovery request was specific,
  • There were no alternative means to ascertain defendant’s name and address,
  • Strike 3 had to know defendant’s name and address in order to serve the summons and complaint, and
  • Defendant’s expectation of privacy in his or her name and address was outweighed by Strike 3’s right to use the judicial process to pursue a plausible claim of copyright infringement.

On the last point, the court observed that the privacy interest was outweighed especially given that the court could craft a limited protective order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) to protect an innocent ISP subscriber and to account for the sensitive and personal nature of the subject matter of the lawsuit.

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 2018 WL 2278110 (D.Minn. May 18, 2018)

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.

Court allows Microsoft to unmask unknown Comcast users accused of infringement

A federal court in Washington state has given the green light for Microsoft to subpoena records from Comcast to discover the identity of the person or persons associated with an IP address used to activate thousands of unauthorized copies of Microsoft software.

Statue_of_Anonymus_(Budapest,_2013)

Generally, in federal court litigation, a party cannot serve discovery requests or subpoenas until after the plaintiff and defendant have conferred (in a Rule 26(f) conference). But when the plaintiff does not know the identity of the defendant, there is a bootstrapping problem – discovery needs to be taken to find out the defendant with whom to conduct the conference. In situations like this, the plaintiff seeking to unmask an unknown defendant will file its complaint against one or more “John Does,” then ask the court for leave to serve discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference.

That is what happened in this case. It is a common tactic used by parties legitimately seeking to enforce intellectual property, as well as parties that may be considered copyright trolls. See, e.g., this early bittorrent case from 2011.

Microsoft filed its complaint and also filed a motion for leave to take discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference. Finding that good cause existed for the early discovery, the court granted the motion.

It held that

(1) Microsoft had associated the John Doe Defendants with specific acts of activating unauthorized software using product keys that were known to have been stolen from Microsoft, and had been used more times than were authorized for the particular software,

(2) Microsoft had adequately described the steps it took in an effort to locate and identify the John Doe defendants, specifically by utilizing its “cyberforensics” technology to analyze product key activation data, identifying patterns and characteristics which indicate software piracy,

(3) Microsoft had pleaded the essential elements to state a claim for copyright and trademark infringement, and

(4) the information proposed to be sought through a subpoena appeared likely to lead to identifying information that would allow Microsoft to serve the defendants with the lawsuit.

Microsoft Corp. v. John Does 1-10, 2017 WL 4958047 (W.D. Wash., November 1, 2017)

Image courtesy Dmitrij Rodionov under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Licensed granted hereby under same terms.

Another court puts an end to a social media discovery fishing expedition

480px-Old_photo_of_woman_holding_a_fisherman_caught_fishPlaintiff sued a construction company and certain municipal authorities for negligence and loss of parental consortium after her toddler son was seriously injured in front of a construction site. Defendants sought broad discovery from plaintiff’s Facebook account, to which plaintiff objected in part. But the trial court required plaintiff to answer the discovery. So plaintiff sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court overturned the trial court.

It held that defendants’ discovery requests were overbroad and compelled the production of personal information that was not relevant to plaintiff’s claims.

Defendants had sought copies of postings on plaintiff’s Facebook account dealing with:

  • Any counseling or psychological care obtained by plaintiff before or after the accident
  • Relationships with [her injured son] or her other children, both prior to, and following, the accident
  • Relationships with all of plaintiff’s children, “boyfriends, husbands, and/or significant others,” both prior to, and following the accident
  • Mental health, stress complaints, alcohol use or other substance use, both prior to and after, the accident
  • Any lawsuits filed after the accident by plaintiff

The court observed that one of the defendants’ arguments to the trial court essentially conceded it was on a fishing expedition. The attorney stated, “These are all things that we would like to look under the hood, so to speak, and figure out whether that’s even a theory worth exploring.” And the magistrate judge in the trial court (though ordering the discovery to be had) acknowledged that “95 percent, or 99 percent of this may not be relevant,” and expressed some misgivings at the possibility that large amounts of material might have to be reviewed in camera.

Finding that the trial court order departed “from the essential requirements of the law” because it was overbroad and required the production of irrelevant personal information, the court quashed the discovery requests.

Root v. Balfour Beatty Const. LLC, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 444005 (Fla.App. 2 Dist. February 5, 2014)

Bullied student did not have to hand over all of his social media content in lawsuit against school district

A student sued the school district in which he attended high school for failing to protect him against bullying. The school district served discovery requests on the student seeking electronic copies of everything he did on social media during the time period of the alleged bullying. When the student refused to produce all of his social media content, the school district moved to compel.

picardThe court held that the student did not have to produce all of his social media content, but had to produce any materials that revealed, referred, or related to any “emotion, feeling, or mental state.” The court looked to the case of E.E.O.C. v. Simply Storage Management, LLC, 270 F.R.D. 430 (S.D.Ind.2010) to find that the mere fact that the student had social communications was not probative of any mental or emotional state. Rather, the school district would be entitled to discover whatever communications were relevant to the claims or defenses in the matter.

In the social media discovery context, this meant something less than the student’s entire social media history:

To be sure, anything that a person says or does might in some theoretical sense be reflective of her emotional state. But that is hardly a justification for requiring the production of every thought she may have reduced to writing or, indeed, the deposition of everyone she may have talked to.

Despite this attempt by the court at limitation, one is left to wonder whether the scope of the court’s order — requiring production of materials that revealed, referred, or related to any “emotion, feeling, or mental state” — is so vague as to be of no real help. Scarcely anyone’s casual social media content (let alone the content of the typical teenager) contains material that is void of emotion, feeling or mental state. Tweets, comments, status updates and wall postings drip with pride, humor, loneliness, angst, and the rest of the spectrum of human sentiment.

D.O.H. ex rel. Haddad v. Lake Central School Corp., 2014 WL 174675 (N.D.Ind. January 15, 2014)

Related: Plaintiff has to turn over emotional social media content in employment lawsuit

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses and individuals identify and manage issues dealing with technology development, copyright, trademarks, software licensing and many other matters involving the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com

Court allows expedited discovery to identify website hijackers

Indigital Solutions, LLC v. Mohammed, 2012 WL 5825824 (S.D.Tex. November 15, 2012)

Plaintiffs alleged that one or more unknown defendants used malware to gain access to plaintiffs’ email account, web hosting account and domain registration account. From a message in plaintiffs’ email account, the defendants acquired an image of one of the plaintiff’s signature, which defendants used to forge a domain name transfer agreement. Plaintiffs sued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other theories. They sought leave to take expedited discovery to learn the identity of the unknown defendants. The court granted the motion.

The court found that plaintiffs had made a prima facie showing of harm by setting forth a valid claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The discovery request was specific, in that they sought third party subpoenas to specified recipients seeking particular information. All alternative means of discovering the defendants had been exhausted, and the case could not move forward without the information. And the court found no privacy interest on the part of the defendants to be at stake, especially given the evidence that the defendants were not U.S. citizens, thus not subject to any First Amendment interest in anonymity.

Trial court erred in ordering defendant to turn over his iPhone in ediscovery dispute

AllianceBernstein L.P. v. Atha, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2012 WL 5519060 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., November 15, 2012)

Plaintiff sued its former employee for breach of contract alleging he took client contact information on his iPhone when he left the job. The trial court ordered defendant to turn the iPhone over to plaintiff’s counsel so plaintiff could obtain the allegedly retained information.

Defendant sought review of the discovery order. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

The appellate court found that the lower court’s order that defendant turn over his iPhone was beyond the scope of plaintiff’s request and was too broad for the needs of the case. Ordering production of defendant’s iPhone (which, the court observed, has built-in applications and internet access) “was tantamount to ordering the production of his computer.” The iPhone would disclose irrelevant information that might include privileged communications or confidential information.

So the court ordered that the phone and a record of the device’s contents be delivered to the court for an in camera review to determine what, if any information contained on the phone was responsive to plaintiff’s discovery request.

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