Over the past year, we've talked alot about the basics of United States copyright law. For lots of folks, this might've been a handy way to be introduced to the subject. But there is another mechanism by which more Americans are being introduced to the copyright system, often rudely.
It starts with a letter, usually from the recipient's internet service provider. In that letter, the recipient learns that he is apparently being sued, or might be sued, or something like that, for copyright infringement due to downloading copyright-protected subject matter from the Internet. In what can only be described as an avalanche of lawsuits, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been sued for allegedly sharing copyright-protected material, usually based on use of the BitTorrent system.
It seems clear that a certain segment of copyright owners has embraced filing lawsuits and demanding settlements as a new revenue stream. Some of the protected subject matter is conventional subject matter, such as the award-winning movie "The Hurt Locker." a lot of it is, frankly, pornography. Whatever the subject matter, many lawsuits have been filed.
Here is the typical pattern: first, the copyright holders file a suit, naming the defendants by using their Internet Protocol address. An Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a numerical label assigned to each device (e.g., computer, printer) participating in a computer network that uses the Internet Protocol for communication. It is a unique number, and the copyright holders presumably determine that there subject matter has been downloaded to the IP addresses named in the complaints filed. After the lawsuit is filed, the court issues a subpoena, ordering the Internet Service Providers to provide them with the personal details of the owner of the IP address. Then, the copyright holder starts his efforts to extract a settlement from the owner of the IP address.
I'm going to talk more about this sort of action over the next few days. Before going on, I want to clarify a few things. Downloading copyright protected material without permission is almost certainly copyright infringement. You should not do this. But you also shouldn't be subject to extortive settlement efforts, and you have to remember that, in order to be found liable for copyright infringement, the copyright holder must prove certain facts, including that a specific person violated the copyright.
Despite the massive number of defendants, none of the cases have made it into a full jury trial as the copyright holders ask for in their original complaint. This calls into question the evidentiary value of the information held by the copyright holders when they file their complaint. It seems clear that the goal is not to go to court, but to reach a settlement.
Next time, I'm going to attempt to talk about some of the technical stuff, and we'll work toward figuring out how you might deal with this kind of situation if you have to.
As always, drop me a note at JDellinger@mainspringlaw.com if you have any questions.