April 16, 2014

avatar

The Latest in Nationwide Internet User Identification – Part 1 (The Ancient State Law "Pure Bill of Discovery")

Plaintiffs are engaging in aggressive and questionable new tactics in a growing wave of federal copyright “John Doe” lawsuits. In those lawsuits, the obvious objective of the plaintiffs is to discover from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) the personal identities of many of the ISPs’ subscribers. The plaintiffs typically present the ISPs with long lists of subscriber IP addresses that have allegedly been used in copyright infringement. Many of these plaintiffs have generated a business model around such suits and are often referred to as “copyright trolls“. The orders permitting “John Doe” discovery necessarily precede the naming of the defendants, and many if not most defendants are likely to settle rather than bear the expense of a defense (not to mention, in many cases, the embarrassment of association with pornographic works). Thus, at least for those defendants, the lawsuits effectively begin and end when their names and contact information are provided to the plaintiffs. Many of the copyright plaintiff attorneys would have it no other way – operating form-based lawsuit “factories” and harvesting settlements, and getting out without presenting any evidence at trial.

The response of the federal judges has been mixed. Many of them just grant the requested relief. In the interest of protecting privacy rights, a few judges have properly appointed attorneys ad litem to represent the unidentified Does. Some have decided that the joinder of numerous defendants in a single lawsuit is improper, and dismissed all the Does except for a single John or Jane. Others have required that the plaintiffs demonstrate a good faith belief that the subscriber-defendants reside in the forum and/or are otherwise subject to the personal jurisdiction of the court.

More recently, the copyright plaintiffs are turning to the state courts – an odd tactic given that copyright infringement claims may only be asserted in federal court. Remember, though, that these plaintiffs appear to be far more interested in the personally identifiable information of Internet subscribers (and coercing settlements), than in the actual pursuit of litigation. As such, they are simply motivated to seek, in the least number of lawsuits, as many Internet subscriber identifications for as many IP address/date/time stamps from as many ISPs as possible.

Consistent with such an objective, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have dusted off an ancient proceeding known as a “pure bill of discovery” – an equitable action that originated in the 19th century, before discovery was even available in legal proceedings under common law. As it turns out, this action is still available under a narrow set of circumstances in some states, including Florida, primarily where discovery is not otherwise obtainable and there is no adequate remedy at law.

Plaintiffs use this action to seek discovery in state court – presumably to avoid some of the same hurdles encountered in federal court. In Florida (the preferred jurisdiction so far), they contend that they should be permitted to file a “pure bill of discovery” for any alleged infringement, so long as they can somehow connect the alleged infringement to that jurisdiction (for example, because another alleged member of the same BitTorrent “swarm” – who could even be the plaintiff’s forensic investigator – was allegedly located in Florida).

But these plaintiffs aren’t using the “pure bill of discovery” the way it is supposed to work.

Because the “pure bill of discovery” is for the sole purpose of obtaining discovery, the “defendants” in such an action should be the person from whom the information is sought. Here, that would be the ISPs. However, suing dozens and dozens of ISPs located across the country in a Florida state court could be inconvenient and costly to the plaintiffs given that the ISPs would need to be served with process and a significant number of the ISPs would likely resist. In addition, if there were actual adversaries (i.e., ISP defendants), the plaintiffs would have to demonstrate their rights and convince the court that they are entitled to relief in an adversarial hearing before an order could be issued and before any subpoenas could be issued.

Preferring otherwise, the plaintiffs are suing the (unrepresented, unnamed, and defenseless) Doe defendants in their “pure bill of discovery” actions. That doesn’t make sense, you may say, because the plaintiffs are not seeking any discovery from the Does. True – in a “pure bill of discovery” action, the plaintiff has to be seeking discovery from the defendants in that action. To address this detail, the plaintiffs’ lawyers fictionally assert that they are seeking to require the Does to “confirm” that the identifying information to be provided by the ISPs is “accurate.” And, naturally, before the Doe defendants can “confirm” that they are who they are said to be, the plaintiffs need to uncover their names. So, after filing the lawsuit in a state court, the plaintiffs file an ex parte motion for discovery seeking to issue discovery requests to a long list of ISPs located across the nation (many beyond the state court’s jurisdiction), to obtain the personally identifiable information of hundreds of individual subscribers (i.e., the John Does). These ex parte motions actually get granted tout de suite.

Although the ISPs (much less the John Does) don’t have any opportunity to be heard beforehand, the ISPs can oppose the discovery requests once those requests are served on them. As a practical matter, though, most of the ISPs don’t; and those that do may simply be met with a voluntary dismissal by the plaintiff (as to those Does only), who would presumably rather not have the court actually hear the arguments made. Thus, the plaintiffs for the most part can readily obtain the necessary personally identifiable information to threaten to sue the alleged infringers (in federal court) and, in all likelihood, obtain quick settlement.

To the extent these plaintiffs get away with it, they have found a way to obtain a court order without opposition that permits nationwide identification of mass defendants in a single lawsuit. Assuming the Doe defendants settle, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many do, bothersome details such as service of process, personal jurisdiction, venue, joinder, and even advocacy in a court of law can be avoided entirely.

And why stop with seeking federal copyright claims? If these proceedings can actually be used in the way the plaintiffs are using them, there’s no reason why anyone couldn’t sue in Florida state court in order to get identifying subscriber information for subscribers located anywhere, from any ISP or other communications provider, under any legal theory. It seems to be the perfect tool of stealth and expedience, unless you happen to believe in the protection of fundamental individual rights and that the role of our judicial system is to resolve cases or controversies. It is hard to imagine that this antediluvian equitable action was intended to serve as a settlement weapon in abusive mass copyright litigation.