HOUSTON – Sick of what they call harassment, people caught in what one judge calls, “essentially an extortion scheme,” are fighting back against adult movie companies and attorneys who are threatening to publicly link people to porn if they don’t pay thousands of dollars.
It’s happening to more than 1,000 people in the Houston area.
They’re caught in so-called “John Doe” lawsuits accusing them of illegally downloading and sharing adult movies. But many of the defendants insist they have done nothing wrong, and want the lawyers representing the companies to stop.
“I’ve said it to these attorneys more than once, bring it on,” said a Texas woman involved in one of the lawsuits. Because her case is still active in the courts, her attorney asked that we not use her name.
She was shocked when she learned her Internet address was one of 56 accused of illegally downloading and sharing porn. She was named in a lawsuit filed by Houston attorney Douglas McIntyre on behalf of the adult movie company First Time Videos LLC.
“It felt like a shakedown from the first letter we got from this law firm,” said the woman. “It never felt like anything other than that.”
That’s because the woman maintains she and her family didn’t do anything wrong.
“The time and date they allege we did this, we were sitting in front of the TV watching the Survivor finale with our 12-year-old daughter,” she told the KHOU 11 News I-Team.
It’s why she says she’s ignored the repeated messages from lawyers with offers to settle her case before she’s publically named in a lawsuit linking her with porn.
It’s a threat she accuses attorneys of preying upon.
For a quick settlement of $3,400, lawyers for the adult movie company say defendants, initially identified only as “John Doe,” can make the whole thing go away.
“They’re not accusing you of downloading Bambi,” explained the woman. “They do it with porn because they know people are embarrassed and ashamed, even if they didn’t do it, they don’t want to be associated with it.”
Tom Vaughn of Pasadena wasn’t as lucky. His name appeared in a lawsuit accusing him of illegally downloading the movie “Virgins 4.” Vaughn says he’s innocent.
“I’m telling you I didn’t do it,” said Vaughn. “Ain’t never heard of that movie. Ain’t never seen that movie.”
He has no idea of how he ended up accused of illegally downloading anything.
“I use my Internet mostly, I play fantasy football,” said Vaughn. “That’s about all I do on mine.”
In fact, Vaughn said he’s doesn’t even know how to download movies, insisting he’s not tech-savvy enough to do what’s alleged.
“My extent of training, I took a course on Windows 2000 just so I could learn to operate the computer,” explained Vaughn.
So how are people who say they didn’t download anything ending up in court?
Attorney Ken Henry, who represents clients who say they were wrongly included in John Doe lawsuits, said the legal filings are nothing more than a giant fishing expedition by adult movie makers and their lawyers looking for quick cash.
“These people are ruthless, and they don’t care whether they get it right or not,” said Henry.
Henry filed a class-action lawsuit against five adult movie companies accusing them of fraud, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress resulting from the John Doe suits.
As proof of his claims, Henry pointed to a federal court order issued in a “John Doe” case in New York. In the order, the judge writes that copyright attorneys representing adult movie makers estimate that 30 percent of the time subscribers named in lawsuits did not download or share copyrighted material.
Henry estimates 250,000 people have been wrongly accused in “John Doe” lawsuits nationwide.
“To accuse somebody of doing something when you have absolutely no proof, or the thinnest reed of any kind of proof, and to try and extract from them money because you know they’re going to be ashamed if the word gets out that they were involved in this lawsuit, to me it’s just below the standard of any kind of professional activity that I would certainly ever want to be involved in,” said Henry.
In Houston, Attorney Douglas McIntyre has filed 25 different “John Doe” lawsuits involving nearly 1,700 people since June, 2011.
We wanted his reaction to defendants’ claims that they were the victims of a shakedown.
“I can’t comment on any of that,” said McIntyre outside of his Houston office. “No they’re not. It’s a long story.”
The I-Team asked McIntyre, who did not return multiple messages left for him, if we could schedule some time to sit down and discuss the issue.
“No, I don’t have any time,” replied the attorney.
In the meantime, defendants like the Texas woman, can only wait for their opportunity to prove their case to a judge and jury.
“I have several friends that are concerned it could happen to them,” she said. “And it could, it could honestly happen to anybody. We knew we hadn’t done anything wrong, and we knew that paying these people was, we were giving in to extortion.”
In court, the head of one adult movie company claimed his company’s movies are illegally downloaded more than 100,000 times a month, hurting his business.
Defendants we talked with said they don’t have a problem with companies going after copyright violators who illegally downloaded the movies. Instead, they have a problem with what they see as fishing expeditions.
While the lawsuits claim that movie makers hired investigators to track illegal downloads, attorneys representing John Does say there’s no way of determining how accurate that work is, or who was actually using the computer when the downloads supposedly took place.