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New District law group tackles movie file sharing

By Amanda Becker
Monday, June 14, 2010; 12

Seven lawsuits filed by an area law group against thousands of individuals who allegedly downloaded movies from the Internet have sparked a debate about whether mass litigation is the most effective response to online file sharing.

The US Copyright Group, a District-based venture backed by attorneys from Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, has sued in federal court at least 14,000 John Doe defendants who allegedly downloaded independent movies from the peer-to-peer file-sharing site BitTorrent. The scope of the litigation, which if successful could generate upward of $20 million even if settled out of court, is expected to expand as action is taken on behalf of more film producers against additional groups of defendants.

The attorneys organizing the effort characterize the lawsuits, which were filed on behalf of the producers and financiers of independent productions that include "Far Cry," "The Gray Man" and most recently and notably the Academy Award-winning "The Hurt Locker," as an attempt to save cinema by helping filmmakers profit from their intellectual property. Civil liberties organizations say the group is merely a moneymaking venture that is using dubious litigation tactics to go after large groups of individuals to generate profit.

"These are organizations that are formed for the purpose of suing, and they view the legal system as a system for making money and then use it to fund additional lawsuits," said Jennifer Granick, an attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The US Copyright Group worked with the German technology company GuardaLey to identify the numerical Internet addresses of individuals downloading movies from popular file-sharing Web sites and initiate lawsuits, court records show. The group then subpoenaed Internet service providers, including Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, to find out the identities of customers linked to the addresses connected with file-sharing activity so they could be named in the lawsuit.

Most ISPs complied, handing over customer data. People have begun receiving what the group calls "pre-litigation cease and desist letters" that ask for payment of $1,500 to $2,500 to settle the matter out of court, which some have elected to do, according to plaintiffs' attorney Thomas Dunlap. Time Warner Cable, however, argued that looking up the requested data would be burdensome and costly and is resisting the subpoena.

The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with the District-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Time Warner Cable's position, based on different grounds. The organizations argue that because many of the individuals implicated in the lawsuit have not yet been identified, it is unclear whether the District of Columbia is the correct jurisdiction in which to bring the lawsuit or if the claims against different individuals have enough in common to be lumped together in a single legal action.

"Even if all these people at some time or another, somewhere or another, may have downloaded the same movie, that does not a single case make," Granick said. "That's multiple cases against multiple people that have to be brought separately and in separate jurisdictions."

Experts liken the lawsuits to those filed by the Recording Industry Association of America, which has sued at least 30,000 people since 2003 for music piracy and earlier this month asked a judge to shut down the file-sharing site LimeWire. Napster, another file-sharing Web site, previously settled a piracy lawsuit with the RIAA for nearly $300 million.

"At least the RIAA was a real organization," Granick said, noting the differences between a trade organization and one formed specifically to pursue litigation.

The US Copyright Group's Web site, which lists no address or phone number for the organization, describes itself as a "conglomeration" of law firms and technology companies that "work hand-in-hand with each other to end unlawful downloading" at no cost to the plaintiff. The counsel of record on the lawsuits filed thus far is Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, which has offices in the District, Vienna and Leesburg.

Though "our firm has done everything to date from a legal perspective, we have other firms that have signed on or agreed to serve as counsel in other jurisdictions," Dunlap said. "We plan to file suit against any defendant we don't plan on settling with in jurisdictions around the U.S."

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