Why suing downloaders for infringement is misguided.

Much of the work that I do in copyright litigation circles not only around defending John Doe Defendants who have been implicated in some lawsuit or who have received a notice or a DMCA letter from their ISP.  Rather, a lot of what I do involves having discussions with copyright holders and their attorneys swaying them from suing individual downloaders.

I wouldn’t say that a newly minted attorney (or a seasoned veteran attorney) who chooses to fund his law firm’s coffers with tons of settlement cash by suing individual downloaders is unethical for doing so — I simply think their attempts to stop piracy by suing downloaders are simply misguided.

Many attorneys justify their attempts to sue individual downloaders by the “death of a thousand cuts” theory, which acknowledges that one “lost sale” from a download won’t hurt anyone. However, multiply that by thousands, and a copyright holder can go bankrupt from the loss of revenue from piracy. While I understand their concerns (and agree somewhat in theory), I still say that going after the direct infringers (e.g., the internet users who copied and distributed the copyrighted content via the use of bittorrent software) is the WRONG approach to solve the piracy problem.

Below is a snippet of an e-mail I sent to an attorney who has been quite proactive on the copyright infringement front. His approach was somewhat different from the Prenda / Lipscomb / Dunlap Grubb & Weaver, PLLC approach to suing internet users, and while I will keep his information private for the purposes of this article, I agree that these predatory lawyers (the “copyright trolls” we speak about on the blogs) have made a mess for the copyright holders, “poisoning the well” for copyright holders who still wish to sue downloaders. I hope reading the following snippet may sway them to pursue other avenues to solve the piracy problem.

Dear [attorney],

I agree with the “death of a thousand cuts” problem when it comes to piracy and bittorrent. I am not sure what percentage of downloaders would actually purchase the copyrighted title (or a subscription to a copyright holder’s service) if the pirated title was not readily available to be downloaded, but it would be interesting to take an unbiased study and research the issue.

I also suspect that much of piracy is a distribution problem. I’ve heard this real-world example [from a few years back] as a justification for piracy. If someone wanted to see the “Game of Thrones” HBO series and they did not have access to HBO’s online website service (e.g., no cable; not going to subscribe), then they go to rent it on Redbox, Netflix, or Amazon Prime, and it is not available, and then they even go to purchase a season online and even that is not available, then they’ll pirate the series and feel justified about it (and they’ll be angry at the company as the bittorrent software moves the files onto their hard drives). I doubt this is the same for much of the adult content litigation (which I suspect infringement is a result of “browse, click and download, then watch”), but I’ve often commented that a wholesale iTunes store-like site (“Red Light Box”) would be a good source for purchasing or renting adult content (which is the subject of many of the lawsuits, as you know).

The jist is that I understand the desire to sue individual downloaders, and I understand the justifications for doing so. I am also certainly not going to sway you from suing individual downloaders with an e-mail.

However, I have always believed that internet users are not the correct parties to sue because many of them do not appreciate the severity for the acts of infringement they commit quite regularly. In other words, they are not the correct parties on whom to put the risk and/or the burden of violating the copyright laws because there are better alternatives available to solve the piracy problem and to mitigate damages from lost revenues. In my opinion, it is better to approach the issue from the “eliminate-the-available-content” approach via DMCA takedown letters, removing links, and taking down bittorrent trackers. Suing the content hosting companies is another approach, as you have explored successfully (although I understand the frustrations of this approach as well — how many times can someone sue The Pirate Bay).

[2017 UPDATE: FYI, Carl Crowell has created a new entity called RIGHTS ENFORCEMENT which has reverse-engineered CEG-TEK’s proprietary DMCA copyright infringement notice system.  Many of you have visited CEG-TEK links thinking that RIGHTS ENFORCEMENT was CEG-TEK, but really they are an ‘evil twin’. Nevertheless, keep reading, and think of “RIGHTS ENFORCEMENT” instead.]

I even don’t like the CEG-TEK $200 per title infringement software system / website solution where they send letters to the infringers days after the download, however, this appears to be the most efficient way to get a quick settlement and teach the downloaders a civic lesson on the dangers of downloading copyrighted titles.

But as for “poisoning the well,” yes, I fully see your point and appreciate the damage these law firms have done with their copyright trolling lawsuits.

Warm regards,

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