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Rights Groups Seek to Quash Subpoenas in Movie-Download Lawsuits

4 Jun, 2010 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Several civil liberties organizations late June 3 filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs in support of Time Warner Cable’s attempt to not divulge information about subscribers alleged to be illegally downloading movies.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Public Citizen Litigation Group separately filed the briefs in response to actions by U.S. Copyright Group (USCG), an upstart Washington, D.C.-based law firm (www.savecinema.org) that specializes in targeting individual defendants alleged to illegally download copyrighted movies on file-sharing websites.

USCG, working with independent film producers and studios, has filed seven “John Doe” lawsuits in the District of Columbia implicating more than 14,000 individuals that it claims allegedly downloaded unauthorized copies of movies such as The Hurt Locker and Far Cry, among others. In doing so, USCG issued subpoenas to ISPs seeking the names and addresses of those subscribers.

Indeed, Hurt Locker won five Oscars, including first female best director Kathryn Bigelow, but generated less than $17 million at the domestic box office. Voltage Pictures, which produced the movie, is now targeting 5,000 PC owners that it alleges illegally downloaded the movie.

“With new technology making it easier to commit piracy, we believe it is more important than ever for people to continue to act responsibly in order to protect jobs and our industry's survival,” Voltage said in a statement.

As part of its business strategy, USCG threatens defendants with the maximum allowable judgment for a single copyright infringement ($150,000) in hopes of settling with the individual alleged infringers for a fraction of that amount, according to the EFF.

“If USCG wants to sue thousands of people, it needs to give each defendant a fair chance to fight the accusations,” said Jennifer Granick, EFF civil liberties director. “Instead, USCG is taking shortcuts that will result in innocent people getting tangled up in the dragnet.”

Time Warner Cable claims USCG is abusing the discovery process, and that it does not have the personnel and resources required to track the activities of individual subscribers.

Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU, said that members of the movie industry have the right to challenge alleged copyright infringement, but that they must do so in a way that upholds the law and individuals’ due process rights.

“Lumping thousands of unconnected individuals into a few cases in a court far from where they live, without providing them adequate notice and a real opportunity to challenge the subpoenas, is not that way,” Fine said.

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