Dallas Buyers Club piracy case: court to determine level of fines

  • Australian ISPs must release names of over 4,700 users who shared film
  • iiNet accuses Voltage Pictures of using discovery letters to force settlements

An Australian court will assess how a Hollywood producer deals with people who illegally downloaded Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club amid fears that it used “scare tactics” to bully settlements from suspected pirates.

In a landmark ruling on Monday, some of Australia’s largest internet service providers (ISPs) were forced to hand over the names and addresses of more than 4,700 Australian users who allegedly shared the 2013 Oscar winner on filesharing services including BitTorrent.

An Australian justice will personally decide how much money Voltage Pictures will be able to demand from individuals. “I will also impose a condition on the applicants that they are to submit to me a draft of any letter they propose to send to account holders associated with the IP addresses which have been identified,” justice Nye Perram said. Another stipulation of the ruling was the the identities of the alleged pirates remain confidential.

The ISPs – iiNet, Internode and Amnet Broadband and others – refused a request to hand over the information in October, citing previous lawsuits filed by Voltage Pictures, which had engaged in a practice iiNet chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby called “speculative invoicing” ahead of the lawsuit.

During the case, iiNet’s lawyers accused Voltage of using discovery letters to threaten those who had infringed its copyright into making settlements. “These are not scare tactics, these are facts,” Michael Wickstrom, a royalties expert and vice president of Voltage Pictures, told the court.

Voltage is a smaller, independent film company – recent releases have included Don Jon, Killer Joe and Thanks for Sharing. It has aggressively pursued copyright infringement cases in the US and Denmark.

In the US, aided by American ISPs, Voltage’s attorneys have been lining up names and internet protocol (IP) addresses of people who had illegally downloaded the movie and filing suit against them citing a 1976 statute that allows for a fine of up to $150,000. The defendants have usually settled out of court for around $5,000, occasionally more.

“Once those details are handed over, we expect these customers to face letters of demand, such as those we’ve seen overseas. In some instances these letters have demanded settlement amounts of up to $7,000,” Dalby wrote in the 22 Oct post speculating on the possible outcomes of the Australian lawsuit. Perram said he hoped to prevent egregious demands from the producer, while also curbing the high level of piracy in Australia.

Peer-to-peer sharing services like BitTorrent link together identical files across computers and download them in chunks from multiple machines at once in order to avoid the need for a central server. BitTorrent software automatically sets downloaded files to upload (or “seed”) to other users searching for those files, thus turning many who use them into potential defendants in piracy cases.

Some users may have unknowingly allowed illegal distribution of the film simply by not password-protecting their routers (the IP address is the same whether or not your torrent-happy neighbor steals your WiFi).

Movie studios have responded forcefully to the increase in piracy, but many simply request that the downloader/uploader’s ISP serve their users with a written letter of warning. By contrast, some adult film distributors including the Io Group have aggressively pursued the lawsuit strategy with great success (and no little backlash), to the extent of providing convenient PayPal and credit card options in letters notifying defendants of the suit.

However, the negative PR associated with suing potential customers has generally chilled the number of piracy cases brought against consumers – in 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that it would no longer sue individual users.

Other ISPs have opted (with the government’s blessing, in Canada) to throttle peer-to-peer traffic, slowing down the internet connections of anybody using the internet to access potentially illegal content via those services.


Sam Thielman in New York

The GuardianTramp

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