For a while, it's seemed like the tides had turned on copyright trolls, as federal court judges appear to be more and more skeptical of the (lack of) merits to the concept and strategy behind mass copyright litigation. But a recent decision by a New Jersey federal court magistrate judge seems to send the opposite message—for copyright trolls not to give up, that the courthouse doors are still very much open. At least that's the message I inferred from the headline in the New Jersey Law Journal "Multiple John Doe Defendants Permitted in BitTorrent Case" (subscription required).
If the issues in this case and this latest decision weren't an ongoing focus of my practice, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to look up the case and download the opinion, which is what I did, and much to my surprise, the decision was anything but a windfall for plaintiff Malibu Media LLC, a California distributor of pornographic films. Indeed, the court went through a seemingly reasoned analysis of the legal questions involved when deciding a motion to quash a subpoena, in accordance with FRCP 45(c)(3). The primary issues the court addressed were whether joinder was proper, whether the information sought by the subpoena was relevant, and whether the plaintiff is entitled to pursue its claims for relief as stated in the lawsuit.
The court dealt with the first two issues methodically, and resolved them in favor of denying the motion to quash. When arriving at the third factor, however, the court did not engage in much, if any analysis. The court quoted a case cited in the motion to quash, and then proceeds to its conclusion:
To be clear, the Court certainly does not condone the use of this litigation, and any attendant threat of embarrassment, to coerce any defendant to settle. As noted above, the [court's prior order] requires plaintiff to ensure it has an adequate factual basis before seeking to file an Amended Complaint naming any proper defendant, and that the Court, by granting plaintiff’s request for expedited discovery, has not authorized plaintiff to rely solely on the subscriber’s association with the IP address to supply that basis.
It seemed like the court didn't give much thought to the final argument raised in the motion to quash, and so I went back to re-read from the beginning of the opinion, which is when it occurred to me that the motion had been filed pro se (i.e. by the John Doe defendant himself, rather than by an attorney). A bad idea.
Most attorneys (myself included) take cases like these on a fixed fee basis, usually for less than what the copyright trolls are offering to settle for. The attorneys on the plaintiffs' side know what they're doing. They're familiar with the process, having done it numerous times before, and they have their arguments, briefs, and motions already prepared and ready to file. On top of that, the statutory penalties for copyright infringement are obscene (no pun intended), up to $150,000 for willful infringement, plus attorney's fees. All of that adds up to a less than desirable situation for someone to attempt to represent themselves in court.
But I digress. Regardless of the fact that it's a bad idea to try to defend yourself in a copyright infringement lawsuit, I wonder whether the outcome would have been the same if the motion had been properly drafted and filed by an Internet law or copyright attorney. The bigger problem is this, however: This most recent decision appears to be one of the few that sides with the plaintiff–copyright trolls; it therefore could have a negative precedential effect on future motions to quash filed against copyright trolls. Fortunately, the court's decision is marked "not for publication," but seeing as how the New Jersey Law Journal wrote about it, and I found the decision at the U.S. Court's website in less than 60 seconds, I'm not confident that the decision won't have any lingering effect.