Are courts wising up to BitTorrent copyright trolls?

BitTorrent copyright trolling continues despite Prenda Law’s self-implosion. But there is hope that courts are coming to their senses.

Earlier this week Judge Wright issued a Hulk smash order lambasting the tactics of notorious copyright troll Prenda Law and finding, among other things, that the firms’ attorneys’ “suffer from a form of moral turpitude unbecoming an officer of the court.”

Though Prenda Law’s copyright trolling days may be numbered, it is still too early to announce the death of BitTorrent copyright trolling. Copyright plaintiffs are still filing lawsuits against swarms of anonymous accused infringers, and courts are still allowing those plaintiffs to seek early discovery of John Does’ names.

But there is reason to believe that courts are recognizing the trolls’ disingenuous efforts to join scores of unknown defendants in a single action. Last week, a federal court in Ohio (in Voltage Pictures, LLC v. Does 1-43, 2013 WL 1874862) expressly recognized the concern that some production companies have been “misusing the subpoena powers of the court, seeking the identities of the Doe defendants solely to facilitate demand letters and coerce settlements, rather than ultimately serve process and litigate the claims.” Likewise, the court recognized that other BitTorrent plaintiffs have abused the joinder rules to avoid the payment of thousands of dollars in filing fees that would be required if the actions were brought separately.

So the court issued an ominous warning. Though it found that at this preliminary stage it was appropriate to join all 43 accused swarm participants in a single action, the court noted that “[s]hould [it] find that plaintiff has abused the process of joinder, the individual John Doe defendants may be entitled to — in addition to a severance — sanctions from plaintiff, under [the applicable rule or statute] or the Court’s inherent powers.” The court went on to warn that “[w]hile the Court will not automatically hold plaintiff responsible for the alleged abuses of others in its industry, it will not hesitate to impose sanctions where warranted.”

Though it has taken several years of abusive and extortion-like litigation brought by BitTorrent copyright trolls, we may be entering an era where courts will be more willing to require these trolls to show the courage of their convictions. No doubt we have Prenda Law and its possibly-unlawful tactics to thank mostly for this crackdown. Prenda had a good thing going (from its perspective, of course). Too bad it did not abide by the timeless maxim, “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered.”

Company sued by university can continue emailing that it will not hire students

University of Illinois v. Micron Technology, Inc., No. 11-2288 (C.D.Ill, Order dated April 11, 2013)

The University of Illinois sued Micron for patent infringement. Micron sent an email to several professors that read in part:

Because Micron remains a defendant in a patent infringement lawsuit that [the University] filed against Micron in Federal court in Illinois on December 5, 2011, effective immediately, Micron will no longer recruit [University] students for open positions at any of Micron’s world-wide facilities.

The University asked the court for a preliminary injunction barring future harassing communications from Micron to any University employee. The court denied the motion, holding that:

  • the term “harassing” was vague and therefore the requested injunction would violate Rule 65(d)’s requirement that the injunction describe in reasonable detail the acts to be restrained
  • the prior restraint of speech would likely violate Micron’s First Amendment rights
  • the sought after preliminary injunction did not pertain to the injury alleged in the complaint

Though the court sided in favor of Micron on the question of whether to enter an injunction, it questioned the company’s motives. It found Micron’s decision to be “without tact,” and was “very concerned” that Micron was trying to interfere with the litigation. But there was not sufficient evidence for the court to draw such a conclusion.

Court lets FTC serve litigation documents by Facebook

Decision discusses how courts should allow use of technology of “then-recent vintage”

FTC v. PCCare247 Inc., 2013 WL 841037 (S.D.N.Y. March 7, 2013)

The Federal Trade Commission filed suit against a number of Indian defendants alleging they operated a scheme that tricked American consumers into spending money to fix non-existent problems with their computers. (Ars Technica provided some entertaining background on this industry last fall.)

After some difficulty in effecting service of the summons and complaint on the defendants in India, the FTC asked the court for leave to serve the remainder of the documents in the case (e.g., additional pleadings, motions, notices) via email and Facebook. The court granted the FTC’s motion.

The Federal Rules and Alternative Service

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(f)(3), a court may fashion means of service on an individual in a foreign country, so long as the ordered means of service (1) is not prohibited by international agreement; and (2) comports with constitutional notions of due process. Under Rule 4(f), service of process on foreign corporations may be made in the same manner as on individual defendants.

Not Prohibited By International Agreement

The court noted that the United States and India are signatories to the Hague Service Convention. Article 10 of that Convention allows for service of process through alternative means such as “postal channels” and “judicial officers,” provided that the destination state does not object to those means. India has objected to the means listed in Article 10, although that objection is specifically limited to the means of service enumerated in Article 10.

The court found that service by Facebook is outside the scope of Article 10. And since India has not objected to service by email or Facebook, the court held that international agreement did not prohibit such service.

Comports With Due Process

Quoting Mullane v. Cent. Hanover Bank & Trust Co., the court spelled out that “constitutional notions of due process require that any means of service be ‘reasonably calculated, under all circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.'” Here, the court found, service by email and Facebook were reasonably calculated to provide defendants with notice of future filings in the case.

The FTC had set forth facts that supplied ample reason for confidence that the email and Facebook accounts identified were actually operated by defendants. Two of the defendants had registered their Facebook accounts with email addresses that were independently verifiable. And another of the email accounts was the one used to register one of the defendants’ domain names. The court could also glean information as to the Facebook accounts’ legitimacy by noting that a number of the defendants were Facebook friends with each other.

Service Via Technological Means of “Then-recent Vintage”

The court acknowledged that Facebook service was a relatively novel concept, and that defendants conceivably might not in fact receive notice by that means. But the Facebook service was merely a backstop to email service. (The court observed that “if the FTC were proposing to serve defendants only by means of Facebook, as opposed to using Facebook as a supplemental means of service, a substantial question would arise whether that service comports with due process.”)

It noted that as technology advances and modes of communication progress, courts must be open to considering requests to authorize service via technological means “of then-recent vintage,” rather than dismissing them out of hand as novel. In 1980, in allowing service of Iranian defendants via Telex, a judge from the same court remarked in New England Merch. Nat’l Bank v. Iran Power Generation and Transmission Co. that courts should not “be blind to changes and advances in technology. No longer do we live in a world where communications are conducted solely by mail carried by fast sailing clipper or steam ships.” Twenty-two years later, the Ninth Circuit, in Rio Properties, Inc. v. Rio Int’l Interlink, saw itself “tread[ing] upon untrodden ground” to allow service of process via email.

In this case, taking a cue from Rio Properties to be “unshackled” from “anachronistic methods of service” and, through the due process inquiry be permitted “entry into the technological renaissance,” the court found email and Facebook service to be proper. This was particularly true where defendants were shown to have “zealously embraced” the technologies, and already had knowledge of the lawsuit.

See also:

Court considers Yelp posting as evidence of potential consumer confusion in trademark case

Posting by confused consumer was not hearsay.

You Fit, Inc. v. Pleasanton Fitness, LLC, 2013 WL 521784 (M.D.Fla. February 11, 2013)

In a trademark case between competing health clubs, the court considered a Yelp posting in entering a preliminary injunction, finding that while the anonymous posts were not conclusive evidence of actual confusion, they were indicative of potential consumer confusion.

The dispute centered over the use of “You Fit” and “Fit U” for health clubs. A Yelp user posted the following:

I am soo [sic] confused. I was a member at Youfit in [Arizona] and when I moved back to [California] I saw this place by my house and thought great my gym is here! When I went into the gym, I realized it was called Fit U. They use the same basic color scheme on their sign and the motto seemed the same. When I asked the girl at the desk, … [she] said her owner created this brand. I said what are you [ sic ] rates? Seemed very similar to me as when I was a member at Youfit. Very confusing and a big let down.

The court rejected defendant’s hearsay argument. It noted that affidavits and hearsay materials which would not be admissible evidence for a permanent injunction may be considered if the evidence is appropriate given the character and objectives of the injunctive proceeding. With no analysis as to why, the court found the Yelp posting appropriate to consider at this stage of the case.

Moreover, the court observed in a footnote that the Yelp post was not hearsay to begin with. It was not being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but to demonstrate the consumer’s confusion — a then-existing mental state of the declarant, which is an exception to the hearsay rule. This is an interesting finding. The hearsay and non-hearsay uses of the post both turn on the same content, particularly the statement “I am soo [sic] confused.” That statement is the matter asserted (and in such capacity, excludable hearsay). And it is also the mindset of the declarant (and in such capacity, subject to an exception to the hearsay rule).

The court’s opinion does not address what one might see as the real problem with the Yelp evidence — its authenticity. Perhaps the parties did not bring that up. But one does not have to venture far in imagination to see how a crafty plaintiff could generate, or direct the generation, of self-serving social media content that would be helpful as evidence in a litigated matter.

See also: Customer reviews on social media provide important evidence in trademark dispute

Accessing email server from Canada supported personal jurisdiction in the U.S.

MacDermid, Inc. v. Deiter, No. 11-5388 (2d Cir. December 26, 2012)

The Second Circuit reversed a District Court that held it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over a Canadian defendant accused of accessing email servers located in Connecticut.

Defendant lived and worked in Canada for a U.S.-based company having its principal place of business in Connecticut. She knew her company’s email servers were located in Connecticut.

When she learned that she was about to be terminated from her position, she forwarded confidential company data from her work email account to her personal account.

The former employer sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. That court dismissed the case, holding that the relevant Connecticut state statute (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-59b(a)) did not authorize the exercise of personal jurisdiction. The lower court found that although the statute authorized personal jurisdiction over one who “uses a computer” in the state, defendant’s alleged computer use took place exclusively in Canada.

Plaintiff-employer sought review with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court reversed, holding that the state statute authorized the exercise of personal jurisdiction, and that such exercise comported with due process.

The court found it was “not material” that defendant was outside Connecticut when she accessed her employer’s servers. It held that the statute required only that the computer or network, not the user, be located in the state.

On the due process issue, the court found that defendant had minimum contacts with Connecticut, as she knew the servers were located there. The court also found that she purposefully directed her alleged tortious activity there. After balancing other relevant factors (e.g., location of witnesses, burden on the defendant, Connecticut’s interests in seeing its laws enforced), the court found the exercise of personal jurisdiction to be reasonable.

Email privacy is weak even with court oversight

Huntington Ingalls Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 5897483 (N.D. Cal. November 21, 2012)

A federal court in California has allowed a party to subpoena Google to learn the identity of a Gmail account owner, even though that owner did nothing to involve himself in the dispute.

A contractor that plaintiff hired accidentally emailed “property” belonging to plaintiff to the wrong email address. (The court’s opinion is not clear on the nature of this “property,” but we are safe in assuming it was some sort of proprietary information.) Plaintiff sent messages to the Gmail account seeking return of the property, but the unknown account owner did not respond.

Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the anonymous account holder (John Doe) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief (i.e., to get the property back). Since plaintiff did not know Doe’s identity, it sought expedited discovery so that it could subpoena Google for the identifying information.

email

The court granted the motion for leave to send the subpoenas. It found that:

  • without the subpoena, plaintiff would have no other way to obtain “this most basic information”
  • the subpoena was the exclusive means available to plaintiff to protect its property interest
  • plaintiff’s proposed procedure guarded Doe’s due process rights by requiring Google to give Doe notice of the subpoena and an opportunity to object

The court’s opinion shows how any privacy interest in one’s email account information is tenuous at best. In this situation, the target of the unmasking efforts was, as they say, minding his own business, not doing anything to inject himself into any dispute.

Moreover, unlike many previous cases in which courts have required the party seeking discovery of an anonymous party’s identity to put forth facts showing it has a good case, there was no claim here that Doe did anything wrong. Instead, it was the sender’s mistake. One could find it unsettling to know that other peoples’ errors could cause a court to order his or her identity to be publicly revealed.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Bart Heird under this Creative Commons license.

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.

BitTorrent defendant not negligent for failing to secure home Wi-Fi network

AF Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 2012 WL 3835102 (N.D. Cal., September 4, 2012)

Copyright troll plaintiff AF Holdings sued defendant for, among other things, negligence for failing to secure his home wi-fi network. Plaintiff argued that defendant’s inaction allowed a third-party to commit large-scale infringement of AF Holdings’ copyrighted works.

Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion and dismissed the negligence claim.

It held that a defendant like the one in this case had no duty to protect another from harm in this situation of “non-feasance” (i.e, failing to do something) unless a special relationship existed which would give rise to such duty. In law school this principal is articulated through the hypothetical of standing on a lakeshore watching someone drowning — you don’t have to jump in to save the person unless you are a lifeguard (or the victim’s parent, or a member of some other very limited class).

The court found that no special relationship existed here, thus plaintiff had not articulated any basis for imposing on defendant a legal duty to prevent the infringement of plaintiff’s copyrighted works.

We talked about this issue, along with other issues like copyright preemption, as it arose in a different case back on Episode 170 of This Week in Law beginning at about the 19 minute 40 second mark:

Social media activity proved employee could be served with process

Clint Pharmaceuticals v. Northfield Urgent Care, LLC, 2012 WL 3792546 (Minn. App., September 4, 2012)

Appellant, a healthcare clinic organized as an LLC in Minnesota, got sued in Tennessee. It never showed up to defend itself, so the Tennessee court entered a default judgment against it. When the plaintiff sought to have the Tennessee judgment recognized in Minnesota, the clinic challenged the underlying lawsuit, claiming that the court in Tennessee did not have personal jurisdiction over the clinic, as it had not been properly served with the civil “warrant”.

these leaves are intertwined, just like the employee in this case was with the healthcare clinic

In this case, the court found that the clinic had been properly served because the papers were opened by the wife of the clinic’s owner. The court found she was “intertwined” with the clinic, and should have known what to do with the papers, based in part on the fact that she was “prominently displayed” on the clinic’s website and interacted with commenters on the clinic’s Facebook page.

Photo courtesy Flickr user jenny downing under this Creative Commons license.

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

Court holds that Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace postings relating to plaintiff’s emotional state must be produced in discovery.

Robinson v. Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc., 2012 WL 3763545 (D.Or. August 29, 2012)

Plaintiff sued her former employer for discrimination and emotional distress. In discovery, defendant employer sought from plaintiff all of her social media content that revealed her “emotion, feeling, or mental state,” or related to “events that could be reasonably expected to produce a significant emotion, feeling, or mental state.”

emotional on social media

When plaintiff did not turn over the requested content, defendant filed a motion to compel. The court granted the motion.

The court relied heavily on the case of E.E.O.C. v. Simply Storage Mgmt., LLC, 270 F.R.D. 430 (S.D.Ind. 2010) in ordering plaintiff to produce the requested social media content. The Simply Storage court found that:

It is reasonable to expect severe emotional or mental injury to manifest itself in some [social media] content, and an examination of that content might reveal whether onset occurred, when, and the degree of distress. Further, information that evidences other stressors that could have produced the alleged emotional distress is also relevant.

Consistent with the principles of Simply Storage the court in this case ordered production from plaintiff all social media communications:

that reveal, refer, or relate to any significant emotion, feeling, or mental state allegedly caused by defendant’s conduct;

The production of this category of communications was meant to elicit information establishing the onset, intensity, and cause of emotional distress allegedly suffered by plaintiff because of defendant during the relevant time period.

The court also ordered plaintif to produce all social media materials concerning:

events or communications that could reasonably be expected to produce a significant emotion, feeling, or mental state allegedly caused by defendant’s conduct.

This second category was meant to elicit information establishing the absence of plaintiff’s alleged emotional distress where it reasonably should have been evident (i.e., under the rubric of Simply Storage, on her social media accounts).

The court observed how counsel for the parties plays an important role in the discovery of social media. As the court in Simply Storage recognized, it is an “impossible” job for the court to define the limits of social media discovery with enough precision to satisfy the producing party. To address this impossible situation, it falls to the lawyers to act in good faith to produce required materials, inquire about what has and has not been produced, make the appropriate challenges, and seek revision of the discovery order as appropriate.

Photo courtesy Flickr user xdxd_vs_xdxd under this Creative Commons license.

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