It’s The Year Of The 7,000-Defendant Copyright Lawsuit

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In the past several months, tens of thousands of “John Doe” defendants have been sued for copyright infringement in federal courts. It’s an unprecedented number of people to have hauled into court, even if it’s only on paper. The campaigns are essentially a ramped-up version of what the recording industry did by suing vast numbers of individual peer-to-peer downloaders over a period of about a decade.

In West Virginia, lawyer Kenneth Ford has filed one lawsuit accusing more than 7,000 “John Doe” defendants, and another naming more than 9,700, accusing them of downloading copyrighted pornographic content. That’s on top of the 5,000-plus defendants he sued earlier this year. In Chicago, a federal judge has already ordered ISPs to hand over the names of about 3,000 customers to attorney John Steele, who’s also representing porn studios. And in Washington D.C., lawyer-controlled companies like U.S. Copyright Group are litigating against public-interest lawyers from the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation after suing around 16,000 defendants (in several separate suits) for allegedly downloading movies like “The Hurt Locker” and “Far Cry.”

It isn’t just public-interest lawyers who rail against the strategy, either. In a motion [PDF] filed in May, Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) asked a Washington, D.C., judge to quash the subpoenas asking for users’ names. The company complained that attorney Tom Dunlap was demanding identifying information from Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) for 6,284 defendants — an expensive and time-consuming process. Before Dunlap contacted the company, Time Warner had been looking up an average of 567 IP addresses per month, nearly all on behalf of law enforcement, the company said in court papers.

In the case of the music industry, the strategy didn’t exactly pay off. The RIAA, which hired high-priced lawyers, lost large sums of money in its now-suspended legal fight against illegal music downloads. The copyright owners and lawyers now embarking on a similar strategy seem to be hoping that a large group of the defendants will settle quickly, making the litigation profitable.

Defense lawyers in the Washington copyright cases say that suing thousands of people together in a single suit is inherently unfair, because it doesn’t give defendants a fair shot, especially when the suits are filed in a venue that’s convenient only for the plaintiff’s lawyers. The EFF and Public Citizen have already filed motions asking for the first batch of suits, filed by U.S. Copyright Group in March, to be dismissed. The American Civil Liberties Union, a group that doesn’t often involve itself in copyright issues, is also fighting the suit.

The Washington lawsuits are based on copyrights from independent and mainstream films. But more recently, the porn studios and their lawyers are jumping onto the bandwagon. “2010 is going to be the year of lawsuits,” an Arizona porn studio owner told the Chicago Tribune. He’s hooked up with Steele, the Chicago lawyer, who was recently called a “pirate slayer” by an adult video magazine.

Some critics have suggested that lawyers pursuing the porn lawsuits are using the added threat of embarrassment to pressure defendants into a quick settlement — a threat that might be greater in the case of gay and lesbian content. Adult Entertainment company IO Group filed suit in August against more than 200 “John Doe” defendants alleged to have downloaded gay adult content.

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