HOUSTON—An adult-movie company in California is targeting 41 Houston-area IP (Internet protocol) addresses in a lawsuit to reveal the names and addresses of people who allegedly “stole” a copyrighted adult film.
But at least one judge has already called the company’s methods tantamount to a “shake down,” or extortion.
An elderly couple in Deer Park is included in the most recent group of defendants who received notices late last month from their Internet service providers -- in their case, AT&T. The notice told them that a subpoena has been served on AT&T requiring the company to disclose the name, street address and other information connected to their IP address. Subpoenas of this type are common in criminal cases when investigators are searching for the addresses of suspects who have been detected through electronic surveillance downloading child pornography. But this is a civil lawsuit where the plaintiff is trying to find out who, other than just a specific IP address, might have downloaded their product illegally.
“It was very disturbing. Very disturbing,” said a man we will call “Bill.” The 69-year-old retiree, reluctant to reveal his identity, said he was shocked to receive the lawsuit notice. He and his wife were even more shocked when they were told what the lawsuit alleges someone connected to their IP address downloaded from the Internet illegally.
“Did you say porn,” his wife said during our interview. “Did you say porn?”
“Oh boy,” the husband added. “No we weren’t aware of that at all. It’s been a strain on our marriage and I don’t know how this happened.”
The company is called K-Beech, Inc. Located in Chatsworth, California its website says the company is celebrating its 25th year in the adult-entertainment industry. But in the last year, in different judicial jurisdictions across the country, the company has sought compensation from individuals it believes to have downloaded its movies through peer-to-peer data sharing sites, like BitTorrent.
K-Beech claims that individuals linked to the IP addresses cited in the lawsuit downloaded, illegally, a title called "Virgins 4" They are seeking the court’s help to identify the individuals linked to each IP address so that they can seek compensation from those individuals.
“This is sort of the pornographic version of Napster,” said 11 News legal analyst Prof. Gerald Treece with the South Texas College of Law.
But late last year, in a similar suit filed by K-Beech, Inc., a judge in Virginia refused the company’s request to get names of the defendants.
In his ruling Judge John Gibney Jr. said “…the plaintiffs have used the offices of the Court as an inexpensive means to gain the Doe defendants’ personal information and coerce payment from them. The plaintiffs seemingly have no interest in actually litigating the cases, but rather simply have used the Court and its subpoena powers to obtain sufficient information to shake down the John Does.”
The judge’s ruling stated that defendants were being charged as much as $2,900 to keep their names out of the public eye.
The Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) called the cases “little more than a shakedown scheme” in which plaintiffs run “roughshod over due process in order to extort settlements.”
“He did not want the courts to be used for what he considered a shakedown of these individuals,” said Treece of the judge’s ruling in Virginia. “The viewer can determine, is that a legitimate settlement of a copyright claim or is that extortion? Or is it both?”
“Extortion...without a gun,” said Bill, the elderly man in Deer Park who is among the defendants in the lawsuit.
A Houston-area lawyer representing K-Beech, Inc. did not return our calls for comment. But in court documents the company says it “suffered actual damages...including lost sales, price erosion, and a diminution of the value of its copyright” because of the illegally downloaded movies.
Meanwhile couples like Bill and his wife are looking for legal advice. Before the subpoena notice they said they knew little about computers, IP addresses, or if someone else accessed their address.
Some defendants in the past have successfully filed to have the court block or “quash” the subpoena. Legal experts say it is often difficult to prove, when confronted with multiple computers and un-secured access to a wireless router connected to the same IP address, who physically downloaded a copyrighted file.