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.

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.

Complaint site does not have to identify its users

Petitioner filed an action in New York state court seeking to compel PissedConsumer.com to disclose the identity of the person or persons who posted certain statements to the site. These statements criticized petitioner for allegedly failing to fulfill an advertising promise to give the user a $500 gas card. The anonymous user went on to complain that petitioner “will forget about you and … all the promises they made to you” once “you sign on the dotted line.”

The trial court denied the petition to compel PissedConsumer.com to turn over the names of its users. Petitioner sought review with the Appellate Division. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that the lower court properly denied the petition since petitioner failed to demonstrate that it had a meritorious cause of action as required to obtain pre-action discovery:

Nothing in the petition identifies specific facts that are false and when the statements complained of are viewed in context, they suggest to a reasonable reader that the writer was a dissatisfied customer who utilized respondent’s consumers’ grievance website to express an opinion. Although some of the statements are based on undisclosed, unfavorable facts known to the writer, the disgruntled tone, anonymous posting, and predominant use of statements that cannot be definitively proven true or false, supports the finding that the challenged statements are only susceptible of a non-defamatory meaning, grounded in opinion.

The court seemed to recognize the importance of anonymous speech, and that one must not lightly cast aside its protections. If you’re going to go after an online critic, best have a cause of action that you can actually plead.

Woodbridge Structured Funding, LLC v. Pissed Consumer, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2015 WL 686383, (February 19, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients with technology, intellectual property and new media issues.

Court orders Twitter to identify anonymous users

Defamation plaintiffs’ need for requested information outweighed any impact on Doe defendants’ free speech right to tweet anonymously.

Plaintiff company and its CEO sued several unknown defendants who tweeted that plaintiff company encouraged domestic violence and misogyny and that the CEO visited prostitutes. The court allowed plaintiffs to serve subpoenas on Twitter to seek the identity of the unknown Twitter users. Twitter would not comply with the subpoenas unless and until the court ruled on whether the production of information would violate the users’ First Amendment rights.

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Twitter to turn over identifying information about the unknown users. In reaching this decision, the court applied the Ninth Circuit analysis for unmasking anonymous internet speakers set out in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 591 F.3d. 1126 (9th Cir. 2009). The court found that the requested discovery raised the possibility of “arguable first amendment infringement,” so it continued its analysis by weighing the balance between the aggrieved plaintiffs’ interests with the anonymous defendants’ free speech rights.

The Perry balancing test places a burden on the party seeking discovery to show that the information sought is rationally related to a compelling governmental interest and that the requested discovery is the least restrictive means of obtaining the desired information.

In this case, the court found that the subpoenas were narrowly tailored to plaintiffs’ need to uncover the identities of the anonymous defendants so that plaintiffs could serve process. It also found that the “nature” of defendants’ speech weighed in favor of enforcing the subpoena. The challenged speech went “beyond criticism into what appear[ed] to be pure defamation, ostensibly unrelated to normal corporate activity.”

Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. v. Does I-IX, 2015 WL 75073 (N.D. Cal., January 6, 2015).

Does the constitution protect anonymity?

Yes, the constitution protects one’s right to speak anonymously, but only to a certain extent. The question of one’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously comes up pretty often in situations where a plaintiff seeks to unmask the identity of someone who is alleged to have committed an illegal act against the plaintiff online. Most often it is a plaintiff seeking to unmask an online critic in a defamation lawsuit.

internet anonymity

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that a state statute prohibiting the distribution of anonymous campaign literature was unconstitutional. The court said that “an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” 514 U.S., at 342.

One would be hard pressed to overstate the importance of anonymous speech. Three and a half decades before the McIntyre decision, the Supreme Court observed that “[p]ersecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.” Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). And “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976).

But free speech protection has its limits. A person does not have a First Amendment right to defame another. So when one party seeks to “de-anonymize” another using the court system, the judge must strike a balance between the plaintiff’s right to seek redress and the defendant’s interest (if any) in remaining anonymous.

Courts have come up with a variety of balancing tests. Though different courts have come up with different ways of conducting the analysis, the test always involves looking at the strength of the facts the plaintiff puts in his or her initial filing. The more likely it appears there is real defamation, for example, the less likely the anonymous speech will be protected. If the strength of those allegations gets beyond a certain tipping point, the risk of an anonymous free speech violation becomes outweighed by the need for the plaintiff to get relief for the unprotected, unlawful speech.

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney, representing businesses and individuals in a variety of situations, including matters dealing with online anonymity and anonymous speech.

Photo credit: petter palinder under this license.

Court tosses copyright claims against 244 accused BitTorrent infringers

Digital Sins, Inc. v. John Does 1–245, 2012 WL 1744838 (S.D.N.Y. May 15, 2012)

Plaintiff Digital Sins filed a copyright lawsuit against 245 anonymous BitTorrent users. The court dismissed the case against all but one of the unknown John Does, finding that the defendants had been improperly joined in one lawsuit. The judge observed that “there is a right way and a wrong way to litigate [copyright infringement claims], and so far this way strikes me as the wrong way.”

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a)(2) provides that defendants can be joined into one case if, for example, the plaintiff’s right to relief arises out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences, or if there is any question of law or fact common to all defendants.

In this case, the court found that those requirements had not been met. Plaintiff’s allegations that the defendants merely commited the same type of violation in the same way, did not satisfy the test for permissive joinder under Rule 20. There was no basis, according to the court, to conclude that any of the defendants was acting other than independently when he or she chose to access the BitTorrent protocol.

The court went on to find that having all the defendants joined in one action would not give rise to any valid judicial economy. Any such economy from litigating all the cases in a single action would only benefit plaintiff, by not having to pay separate filing fees to sue each defendant. Moreover, trying 245 separate cases in which each of 245 different defendants would assert his own separate defenses under a single umbrella would be unmanageable.

Photo credit: nshontz

Ron Paul not allowed to find out who posted mean video about Jon Huntsman on YouTube

Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign Committee, Inc. v. Does, 12-00240 (N.D. Cal. January 25, 2012)

(Hat tip to Venkat for posting a link to this decision.)

Ron Paul’s campaign — Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign Committee, Inc. — sued some John Doe defendants in federal court over an offensive video attacking former (but then current) opponent Jon Huntsman. The video demonstrated a gross insensitivity toward Chinese culture, and was posted to YouTube and promoted on Twitter by a user calling himself NHLiberty4Paul.

Since the campaign did not know the true identity of the John Doe defendants, it asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery” so that it could serve subpoenas on YouTube and Twitter. (The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not allow early discovery like this unless the court specifically permits it.)

The court denied the campaign’s motion seeking early discovery. It held that the campaign failed to show the required “good cause” for expedited discovery set forth in the case of Columbia Ins. Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 577 (N.D.Cal.1999).

Under the Seescandy.com standard, in determining whether there is good cause to allow expedited discovery to identify anonymous internet users named as Doe defendants, courts consider whether:

  • (1) 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;
  • (2) the plaintiff has identified all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant;
  • (3) the plaintiff’s suit against defendant could withstand a motion to dismiss; and
  • (4) the plaintiff 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.

The court found that the campaign failed to address these required issues. One is left to wonder whether there is enough of Paul’s campaign left to make it worthwhile to try again.

No deposition of account holder allowed until he is named as defendant in BitTorrent copyright case

Hard Drive Productions, Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 90412 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2012)

In a mass copyright infringement suit, plaintiff served a subpoena on an internet service provider and got the identifying information for the account holder suspected of trading a copy of a movie via BitTorrent. The account holder was uncooperative with plaintiff’s offers to settle, and denied downloading the file.

Instead of simply naming the identified account holder as a defendant in the case and proceeding with ordinary discovery, plaintiff asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery,” namely, to depose the account holder to learn about:

  • the account holder’s involvement with the alleged distribution
  • his computers and network setup
  • his technical savvy
  • other users who may have had access to the computers or network

The court denied plaintiff’s request for leave to engage in the expedited discovery. It found that unlike other copyright cases in which anonymous infringers were identified, the efforts in this case “went far beyond seeking to identify a Doe defendant.” Instead, the court observed, it would be “a full-on deposition during which [the account holder] who plaintiff admits is likely not represented by counsel, may unwarily incriminate himself on the record before he has even been named as a defendant and served with process.”

Court deals blow to anonymous Bittorrent defendants’ efforts to challenge subpoenas

West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 2292239 (D.D.C. June 10, 2011)

The judge in one of the well-known mass copyright cases filed by Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver a/k/a U.S. Copyright Group (West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829) has issued an order denying motions to quash filed by several of the unnamed defendants. Plaintiff had served subpoenas on the ISPs associated with the IP addresses allegedly involved in Bittorrent activity, seeking to learn the identity of those account holders.

The ruling is potentially troubling because the court refused to even consider the arguments presented by those anonymous parties who did not reveal their identity in connection with the motion to quash. Such an approach undermines, and indeed comes close to refusing altogether to recognize any privacy interest that a person may have concerning his or her ISP account information.

The court observed that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a party must identify himself or herself in the papers filed with the court. In some situations, however, a court may grant a “rare dispensation” of anonymity after taking into account the risk of unfairness to the party seeking anonymity as well as the general presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.

In this case, the court noted that other courts had “uniformly held that the privacy interest in [ISP account] information is minimal and not significant enough to warrant the special dispensation of anonymous filing.”

Absent from the court’s analysis was the potential for harm to defendants who were the subject of these subpoenas but might have the ability to demonstrate (anonymously) that they were not involved. In cases involving adult content, in particular, the harm of being publicly associated with that content — even if the association turns out to be in error — is one that should not be disregarded in this way. Moreover, taking away the ability of an anonymous defendant to challenge his unmasking will encourage extortionate-like behavior on the part of copyright plaintiffs hoping to extract a settlement early in the case. If writing a check is the only way to keep from having to turn one’s name over (and this case pretty much establishes that rule), then more settlements should be expected.

The court went on to reject the arguments in favor of motions to quash filed by John Does who had provided their contact information to the court. The court found that it was premature to rule on any objections based on a lack of personal jurisdiction because the defendants filing the motions had not actually been named as a party. And the court rejected the arguments that the defendants were improperly joined into the action, noting the allegations in the complaint that the IP addresses were involved in a single Bittorrent swarm.

Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to ebrown@internetcases.com, call (630) 362-7237, follow on Twitter at @internetcases, and be sure to like Internet Cases on Facebook.

District judge stays magistrate’s order requiring identification of anonymous defendants

This is a post by Jonathan Rogers. Jon is a licensed attorney in California, with a focus on technology and entertainment law. You can reach him by email at jon@jonarogers.com or follow him on Twitter at @jonarogers.

Faconnable USA Corp. v. Doe, Slip Copy, 2011 WL 2173736 (D.Colo., Jun 2, 2011)

Faconnable issued a subpoena duces tecum to Skybeam, an Internet Service Provider, requesting identifying information about the users associated with two different IP addresses. A magistrate judge denied Skybeam’s motion for protective order, and required Skybeam to provide the requested information. Skybeam sought review of the denial of the protective order with the district court, asking for a stay of the magistrate’s order requiring the disclosure of the information. The court granted the motion to stay.

The court looked at four factors to determine whether it was appropriate to issue a stay against providing the information.

  • the likelihood of success on appeal (to the district judge)
  • the threat of irreparable harm if the stay or injunction is not granted
  • the absence of harm to opposing parties if the stay or injunction is granted
  • any risk of harm to the public interest

The court noted that if the last three factors are in a moving party’s favor, the first factor of likelihood of success is given less importance.

The court determined that if the stay were denied, the ISP would have to disclose the Does’ identities, which could impact their First Amendment interests to speak anonymously. However, if the stay were allowed, the ISP could preserve the information for production later, the only harm being a possible delay for Faconnable’s suit.

The court found that, on balance, the risk of losing First Amendment freedoms was a greater harm than delayed litigation.

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