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.”

ISP’s alleged throttling of BitTorrent and Skype violates Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Fink v. Time Warner Cable, 2011 WL 3962607 (S.D.N.Y. September 7, 2011)

Plaintiffs sued Time Warner (the provider of Road Runner High Speed Online internet access), alleging, among other things, that Time Warner’s alleged “throttling” of plaintiffs’ internet communications violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 USC 1030 (“CFAA”). Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that without their authorization, Time Warner sent forged reset packets which frustrated plaintiffs’ peer-to-peer communications (e.g., BitTorrent and other P2P mechanisms) as well as their use of Skype.

Time Warner moved to dismiss the CFAA claims. The court granted the motion as to claims that required plaintiffs to  plead “loss” as defined by the statute. As for those claims that required only allegations of “access” and “damage,” the court denied the motion to dismiss and let the case move forward.

Plaintiffs brought three claims under the CFAA, one under each of subparts (A), (B) and (C) of 18 USC 1030(a)(5). This part of the statute provides liability for anyone who:

(A) knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer;

(B) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, recklessly causes damage; or

(C) intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage and loss.

No CFAA loss

The CFAA defines “loss” as “any reasonable cost to any victim, including the
cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.”

In this case, plaintiffs alleged that the loss they suffered arose from their payments for high-speed internet services allegedly not received, costs to prevent Time Warner’s throttling practice and the costs of obtaining information elsewhere when they were unable to use their computers for file transfers and VoIP communications. Plaintiffs also pled losses relating to time and effort in assessing “damage” to each computer for which transmissions were interrupted. 

The court found these alleged losses to be outside the scope of those contemplated by the CFAA. Plaintiffs did not allege that they needed to restore data,a program, a system, or information to its condition prior to Time Warner’s conduct. The court held that Plaintiffs had failed to adequately plead this element of a CFAA claim. So it dismissed the claim plaintiffs had brought under 18 USC 1030(a)(5)(C).

“Damage” and “access” adequately pled

Plaintiffs’ failure to adequately plead loss was not the end of the case. Since subparts (A) and (B) of  18 USC 1030(a)(5) do not require one to plead “loss,” but do require pleading “damage” and “access,” the court turned its attention to see if those elements were adequately pled. It found that they were.

The CFAA defines “damage” as “any impairment to the integrity or availability of data, a system, or information.” Plaintiffs alleged that Time Warner impaired their ability to obtain data and utilize their computer systems by knowingly transmitting “reset packets to [their] computers with the intention of impeding or preventing [their] peer-to-peer transmissions” and that damage was caused because the reset packets “compromis[ed] the internal software of [their]computers and impair[ed] their ability to receive and transmit data.” The plaintiffs also alleged that the throttling process prevented data exchange and inhibited certain use of their computers. In addition, plaintiffs identified the specific types of information that had its availability “impeded” and identified a particular program, Skype, that was rendered unusable by the alleged throttling. 

As for “access,” the court looked to the plain meaning, dictionary definition of the word for guidance (since the term is not defined in the CFAA). Plaintiffs had alleged that Time Warner accessed their computers in violation of the statute by knowingly transmitting reset packets to plaintiff’s computers and otherwise accessed their computers to impede data receipt and transmission.” Giving the term “access” a broad meaning, the court found these allegations to satisfy the CFAA requirement.

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, call (630) 362-7237, follow on Twitter at @internetcases, and be sure to like Internet Cases on Facebook.

More subpoenas on the way to identify John Doe BitTorrent users in copyright cases

First Time Videos v. Does 1-37, 2011 WL 1431619 (N.D. California, April 14, 2011)

Hard Drive Productions v. Does 1-118, 2011 WL 1431612 (N.D. California, April 14, 2011)

There have been a couple of new cases filed in federal court in California alleging that unknown BitTorrent users committed copyright infringement and engaged in civil conspiracy by trading porn files online. [Read about some earlier, ongoing cases of this type here and here]. The court has issued orders that move the process of uncovering the identities of the John Doe defendant BitTorrent users.

Generally a plaintiff cannot start the discovery process in a case until it has had a “Rule 26(f)” conference with the defendant. But when the defendants are anonymous (as they are in these BitTorrent cases — they’re known only by IP address), the plaintiff has a bit of a problem. It needs discovery to find out the names of the defendants, but it cannot take discovery before the Rule 26(f) conference. [More on this]

So in cases like this, a plaintiff will ask the court to allow the early discovery to be had. Courts grant those motions allowing early discovery when good cause has been shown.

In this case, the court allowed the discovery because the following four criteria had been met:

(1) The plaintiffs had identified the Doe defendants with sufficient specificity that the court could determine that the defendants are real people who can be sued in federal court. On this point, the court credited the list of IP addresses associated with each of the unknown defendants.

(2) The plaintiffs recounted the steps taken to locate and identify the defendants. Again, the court looked to the fact that the defendants were known only by IP addresses. The names of the defendants could not be ascertained from the information available.

(3) The plaintiffs demonstrated that the action could withstand a motion to dismiss. In some cases this is a tough hurdle to get over. But in copyright cases the threshold can be met relatively easily — simply alleging ownership of a copyright and unlawful copying satisfies this element.

(4) The plaintiffs proved that the discovery was likely to lead to identifying information that will permit service of process. Getting the subscriber information from the ISPs would allow names to be associated with the IP addresses, for further action to be taken.

(The above 4-factor test is drawn from Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy. com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 578–80 (N.D.Cal.1999).)

So ISPs across the country will be getting peppered with more subpoenas, and sending out letters to their John Doe subscribers, giving deadlines to move to quash the subpoenas. More mad scramble to protect identities is on its way.

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