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Legal Shakedowns

November 27th, 2010

The RIAA claims it has stopped, but certain movie producers have not, and this is a practice that goes way back: large corporations, suspecting piracy, send out mass mailings to people accusing them of stealing, and demand thousands of dollars in “settlement” money or else they will be taken to court. Even if the defendants win, it winds up costing them more than the settlement would have cost–even just if measured in time lost and hassle caused.

I remember when it started back in the 1980’s. Then, it was pay TV broadcast via microwave signals that you needed a special satellite dish to receive, and a special box to decode. Back then, there were pirate kits to unscramble the signal. The media companies took a similar slant to today’s: they assumed guilt. They sent people around neighborhoods to see if they could spot parabolic dishes on houses, and if they found any, checked them against subscriber rolls. If there was no subscription, then whammo–you get a letter threatening a lawsuit unless you cough up three hundred bucks, or whatever.

A key point in demanding such a settlement is that it is a lesser amount than one would spend in legal fees in one’s defense. While this could, in one respect, seem lenient, as it allows violators to get off lightly, it is, in another very important sense, highly unethical: it essentially forces people innocent of any violation to choose between paying a large amount of cash which also is a de facto admission of guilt, or paying a much larger amount of cash to defend their innocence–and risk losing and paying crushing amounts. Either way, innocent people–many who cannot afford any such expenditure–are give no choice, no recourse, and are forced to pay money to avoid prosecution.

Should this kind of lawsuit be legal? It seems to be the very definition of extortion, the classic case of the powerful shaking down the little guy. Yes, many of the targets are legitimate–but what about the ones who are not? Are they simply “acceptable losses” in such cases?

The US Copyright Group (USCG), representing certain movie producers, has “sued” 16,000 people without even naming a single one–all they have are IP addresses, and are guessing at who owns them. And as we have seen in the past, this is far from an exact science.

Organizations like the USCG don’t care–they see all people they charge as guilty, or at least want to because otherwise they can do nothing. They don’t want to be held to the standard of proving guilt, they want to try people in civil court simply because they might be stealing. They have gotten around the sticky issue of being incapable of definite identification by simply not giving a damn, and use the legal system as a club to make people pay.

Even just asking the courts to issue an order allowing the plaintiff to demand ISPs hand over detailed records of IP addresses is objectionable. Most ISPs do hand out this data, though they should never do so to anyone except law enforcement. The ISPs that hold out do so not because of principle, but because it’s too much trouble for them. They should refuse simply on the grounds of not betraying customer expectations of privacy–but if that is not good enough, then because many networks are unprotected or could be hacked, and so identifications could lead to false prosecution.

Not to mention that the plaintiffs here don’t give a damn about who is innocent and who is not–they’re like the Medieval crusaders who said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” Not a legal practice I would think we should allow.

Imagine that a newspaper distributor has a newspaper vending machine. He notices that after stocking 100 copies in a machine, only 66 payments were made–meaning that perhaps half of the people who got newspapers took an extra one for free. The vendor got video of everyone who used the machine, but could not identify them or say from the video who took one copy and who took two–however, they did get license plates. If the vendor went to court demanding the judge issue an order for the DMV to release all the names and addresses of the vehicles in the video so that the vendor could threaten them all with lawsuits unless they paid exorbitant “settlements,” would a judge grant such a request?

I would hope not.

Without proof, it is doubtful such a plaintiff would win–and the attempt to shake down people like that would not exactly be seen as kosher. And yet, that is exactly what the RIAA has been doing, and what the USCG is picking up on. They are guessing as to who is stealing their stuff, we know that they are wrong in many cases, and with unprotected WiFi networks and wardriving being a factor, even a correct IP identification is not conclusive. Were the industry one which reacted more with caution, dropping suits that even seem improbable–like the paralyzed stroke victim in Florida accused of downloading music in Michigan–or dropping cases against people who are sympathetic and clearly unable to pay, like the disabled single mother from Oregon–they would at least come across as slightly more legitimate. And although they do drop some of the more ludicrous suits, like the one against the 66-year-old grandmother who supposedly downloaded rap songs on a computer that couldn’t even run the software, their usual stand is to stick to their guns, and demand the $3000–or else.

Technically, I suppose it is legal for these people to send out these mass settlement “offers.” The question I have is, shouldn’t there be a law that protects individuals from the legal shakedown now happening on massive scales?

A recent case which highlights the real agenda these people have is their lawsuit against a lawyer who sells $20 legal kits to people included in the mass-extortion cases, like the 5,000 anonymous defendants in the Hurt Locker suit. The legal kit includes several motions and an affidavit with meticulous instructions on how to fill them out correctly and serve them to the court.

Why is the lawsuit against this lawyer telling? Because the forms would allow potential defendants to defend themselves much more cheaply, thus making the multi-thousand-dollar “settlement” payoff unlikely. Clearly they don’t want to see all the defendants coming back with lawyers, if they fight so hard against even preliminary attempts at a legal defense–something which would turn the tables as it would cost the plaintiffs more money than it would be worth to prosecute. Which means that they were expecting most of the defendants to simply pay the thousands of dollars like nice little extortion victims and not make a fuss.

Even if their actions were not so transparently flagrant, such mass suits should simply not be allowed.

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