A court decision that IP addresses cannot be subpoenaed as people could have far-reaching effects on copyright lawsuits.
When a copyright holder wants to sue someone who it believes is illegally downloading its music/games/videos/whatever, it needs to know who it’s suing first. This is usually done by sending a subpoena to the ISP that runs the local internet, effectively demanding that whoever uses the IP address in question be brought to court. The intent is never to bring them to court, of course, but to arrange a settlement for hundreds or thousands of dollars. It’s an incredibly shady scheme that people have likened to extortion, but it’s also somewhat successful – and over 100,000 such subpoenas went out last year in the United States alone.
That may soon change. In what could be a potentially plot-turning decision, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baker ruled that a Canadian porn company, VPR Internationale, could not subpoena IP addresses from an ISP, because an IP address did not necessarily equal a person. Given that the case in question dealt with the illegal download of adult materials, wrote Judge Baker, allowing the copyright holder to sue IP addresses rather than people could interfere with “fair” legal process.
In particular, Judge Baker cited a recent event in which law enforcement officers raided the wrong people thanks to neighbors downloading child porn on their unsecured wifi networks. With this in mind, wrote Judge Baker, how could the company be sure they were suing the right people?
“The infringer might be the subscriber, someone in the subscriber’s household, a visitor with her laptop, a neighbor, or someone parked on the street at any given moment,” argued Judge Baker in his decision. Perhaps more importantly, he pontificated on whether or not the legal pressure could coerce the innocent into admitting nonexistent guilt:
Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School, noted that whether you’re guilty or not, you look like a suspect. Could expedited discovery be used to wrest quick settlements, even from people who have done nothing wrong? … the embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether the plaintiff VPR has competent evidence to prove its case.
Judge Baker concluded that he would not have his court used as a “fishing expedition” against users whose actual identities – let alone whose guilt – could not be certain.
It’s unclear whether or not this will be a game-changing decision, as some have argued. Texas attorney Robert Cashman said that Judge Baker’s ruling may have been “the order that may end all future John Doe lawsuits.” While this decision does indeed set precedence for anti-Bittorrent cases to come, the fact that the case in question dealt with adult material may mean that other judges may be less inclined to hold it up as gospel truth.