High-powered law firms have for decades won massive settlements from accused online pirates based on legal claims that are now in doubt. Initiating so many battles has created a lot of enemies, though, as one firm recently found out.
Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver was one of the legal agencies that teamed up with Hollywood film studios and the United States Copyright Group (USCG) to file suit against tens of thousands of suspected BitTorrent users who acquired music, movies, or other media content illegally.
Since online piracy became common in the early 2000s, lawsuits trying to stop downloaders have traditionally identified the alleged pirate by their IP address, a computer’s individual specification number that could be likened to its fingerprint. Hundreds of suits were successful in reaping millions of dollars for the plaintiffs, until a recent string of rulings in which state and federal judges announced that an IP address alone was insufficient evidence of a defendant’s guilt.
Defense attorneys representing accused pirates have claimed that, because of the legal grey area, prosecutors sometimes take any measure they can to convince the defendant to settle, rather than leaving the decision up to a judge.
In early 2010, Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver (DGW) – along with film studio Achte/Neunte and GuardaLey, a German tracking company – began legal proceedings against thousands of internet users suspected of illegally downloading the film “Far Cry,” a little-seen film based on a video game of the same name.
Just months after the suit was filed, though, one of the alleged pirates named in the suit filed a counter-suit alleging that Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver committed fraud, abuse, extortion, and a number of other offenses because of their role in a “copyright troll” scheme.
Dmitriy Shirokov first filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 3,000 people named in the original suit, alleging that DGW was threatening to sue all of those people even though such an effort would be far beyond the relatively small firm’s means.
“DGW does not genuinely intend to pursue most, if any, of these thousands of claims to trial,” the complaint read, as quoted by TorrentFreak. “Operating through its alias USCG, DGW advertises its copyright business model to prospective clients in the film industry stating one overriding goal: to ‘obtain settlement’ – not judgments, which would require litigating and proving its allegations.”
“With only thirteen attorneys on staff, DGW has issued a volume of demand letters that far surpass its ability to litigate this volume of claims case by case,” the filing continued. “USCG tells prospective clients that civil prosecution of copyright claims has not been ‘practical,’ in light of the financial status of individual infringers.”
The Massachusetts District Court denied the suit’s class-action status last year, severely limiting the financial compensation, although TorrentFreak reported Tuesday that Judge George O’Toole ordered DGW to pay $39,909.95 (including attorney fees). The decision comes after three years of claims that DGW was unable to find the necessary evidence indicating that they were not trying to extort suspected pirates, that the company’s computer system had crashed, and other stall tactics.
“The case did accomplish what we wanted it to,” Jason Sweet, Shirkov’s attorney, told TorrentFreak. “That is, to deter others from starting similar cases in Massachusetts. It served its purpose.”