Sure you can mail possible pirates, after paying a bond larger than your possible profits
iiNet, the second biggest ISP in Australia, has been a bit of a magnet when it comes to BitTorrent lawsuits. In 2008 they were sued by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) for failing to prevent its subscribers from infringing copyright via Bittorrent, a case it won, as the court found it was not iiNet’s responsibility.
In late 2014, Voltage Pictures – the company behind Oscar winning movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ – started proceedings against Australian users it accused of downloading its movie, just as it has in both the US and Canada. The alleged Australian infringements all occurred between 2 April 2014 and 27 May 2014.
iiNet refused to hand over the account details of the 4,726 IP addresses demanded by Voltage, and took it to court, where, in early April, the judges sided with Voltage. However, in a massive blow to Voltage, they required that any letters sent out to people be approved by the court, undermining the key tactic of exaggerating claims in these kinds of cases. Most such cases rely on threatening significant damages at court in order to ‘encourage’ the recipient to settle, but Justice Perram has indicated that the damages could be as low as AU$10 (US$8), although there could be significant court costs as well.
Now iiNet has dealt Voltage another blow, announcing in a blog post:
“If you do receive a letter you may want to get legal advice. iiNet is working with a law firm that has offered to provide pro-bono services for any of our customers”
This would be a major setback to the speculative invoicing model used by Voltage, which relies on the high potential damages, plus the significant cost of defending a case (greater than the settlement demanded) to ensure a steady revenue stream. With the court restricting the intimidating language, and the offer of free legal counsel to defend the cases, it may end up being far more costly for Voltage to pursue claims than they can hope to recoup.
And while iiNet has jumped to the defense of its customers in this way, it may not be alone. The M2 group has also indicated it may provide pro-bono legal assistance in similar cases, although they have refused to commit prior to a court hearing on May 21st when a date for the transfer of customer information will be agreed.
It is not looking like Australia will be a fruitful venue for copyright trolls.
There are dozens of companies engaged in so-called “copyright trolling” worldwide, the majority connected with adult movie companies.
While most are generally dismissed as second-rate companies out to make a quick buck, U.S. producer Voltage Pictures has developed a reputation for making fairly decent movies and being one of the most aggressive ‘trolls’ around.
The company has targeted thousands of individuals in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and most recently Australia. The company has largely prevailed in these actions but a new case filed this week in the U.S. sees the company on the receiving end of procedures.
The spat concerns Voltage’s plans for a new movie. Starring Anne Hathaway and titled ‘Collosal‘, the flick sees a giant lizard-like creature stomping its way over Tokyo. It sounds an awful lot like Godzilla, recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest-running movie franchise ever. Toho, the Japanese movie studio behind the Godzilla brand, noticed the similarities too.
In a lawsuit filed yesterday in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Toho highlights the hypocrisy of Voltage’s actions.
Describing the company as a “staunch advocate for the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights” after filing hundreds of copyright suits involving its movies The Hurt Locker and Dallas Buyers Club, Toya says that Voltage began promoting its new movie via email at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month.
As can be seen from the screenshot below, the email features three large photos of Godzilla, actress Anne Hathaway, and a giant robot.
“Gloria is an ordinary woman who finds herself in an extraordinary circumstance. Tokyo is under attack by Godzilla and a giant robot and, for some strange reason, Gloria is the only person who can stop it,” the email reads.
Predictably Toho is upset at Voltage’s use of the Godzilla character and associated breaches of the company’s copyrights and trademarks. Only making matters worse is the fact that the image of Godzilla used by Voltage is actually taken from promotional material published by Toho to accompany the release of its 2014 movie, Godzilla.
“Godzilla is one of the most iconic fictional characters in the history of motion pictures. Toho Co., Ltd., the copyright owner of the Godzilla character and
franchise of films, brings this lawsuit because defendants are brazenly producing,
advertising, and selling an unauthorized Godzilla film of their own,” Toho begin.
“There is nothing subtle about defendants’ conduct. They are expressly informing the entertainment community that they are making a Godzilla film and are using the
Godzilla trademark and images of Toho’s protected character to generate interest in
and to obtain financing for their project,” the company continues.
“That anyone would engage in such blatant infringement of another’s intellectual property is wrong enough. That defendants, who are known for zealously protecting their own copyrights, would do so is outrageous in the extreme.”
Noting that at no stage has Voltage ever sought permission to exploit the Godzilla character, Toho says it asked Voltage to cease and desist but the company refused.
Back in 2012, the Australian High Court ruled that ISP iiNet was not responsible for the copyright infringements of its customers. Stymied by that ruling, many Australian file-sharers breathed a sigh of relief, as Antipodean users are usually amongst the last to get content, forgotten in the long-tail of media distribution.
Conversely, it also meant that they were one of the last English-speaking (and English common-law) countries to see the appearance of so-called ‘Speculative Invoicing’, more commonly known as copyright trolling. However, “Down Under” couldn’t escape forever, and eventually the trolls washed up on the shore, in the shape of mega-troll “Dallas Buyers Club” (DBC).
The model should be familiar to most of our readers. A company (or its representative) joins a BitTorrent swarm, and “observes” a number of peers on the torrent. It then applies for a court order for the ISP to hand over the identities behind all those IP addresses so they can be pressured for cash settlement.
The big question was whether the Australian courts would allow for the discovery of subscriber details but in a decision released just minutes ago the courts said ‘yes’. Letters to be sent out to the 4,726 consumers involved will first have to be approved by the court, a move designed to reduce DBC’s ability to overstate the case and the potential penalties involved.
Following a similar ruling in Canada last February, this is the second time these kinds of restrictions have been placed on Dallas Buyers Club/Voltage Pictures. UK ‘trolls’ are also subjected to the same oversight in their initial letters to consumers but subsequent correspondence flies completely under the radar with no court involvement.
In today’s case the judge also ruled that the privacy of the 4726 accounts should be protected but placed no cap on damages. The precise restrictions and justifications will become clear when the verdict is published later today.
while the company has no real idea of the nature of the people they’re targeting, Wickstrom said his company had limits on who would be pursued for cash demands. According to SMH, the executive said that his company “would not pursue an autistic child, people who were handicapped, welfare cases, or people that have mental issues.”
Some compassion from Voltage perhaps? Not exactly – the company seems more interested in how that would look on the PR front.
“That kind of press would ruin us,” Wickstrom said, adding that “the majority” of piracy was in fact occurring at the hands of vulnerable groups.
If that’s truly the case and any “vulnerable” people inform the company of their circumstances, Voltage stands to make very little money from their Australian venture, despite all the expense incurred in legal action thus far. Strangely, they don’t seem to mind.
“This is truly not about the money here, it’s about stopping illegal piracy,” Wickstrom said.