Porn studios accused of extortion in BitTorrent lawsuits

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Lying downPorn studios have turned to extortion of BitTorrent users to make money, looking for payouts of $1,000 to $5,000 from victims too embarrassed or shamed to defend themselves in court, a class action suit claims.

That paltry sum pretty much proves the point that the pornographers are trolling for file-sharing users regardless of whether they've actually downloaded porn, according to the class action suit [PDF], which was filed in Kentucky on Thursday.

From the filing, which Wired posted in its ongoing coverage of the issue:

The pornography purveyors know that this amount of money is less than the cost of defense would be if suit were filed. They also know that individuals such as the Plaintiff in this matter are embarrassed to have their names associated with pornography, and therefore, are susceptible to being shaken down.

In fact, the filing continues, if the shake-down victims were actually guilty of having illegally downloaded porn, the penalty could hit $150,000 for willful infringement of the US Copyright Act.

The case was filed by Jennifer Barker, a woman who the filing claims has never downloaded porn and didn't even know what the heck BitTorrent was when she first got the shake-down call.

Computer porn. Image from ShutterstockThe filing accuses the industry (there are five defendants named) of hiring a British company by the name of Intellectual Property Protection Ltd. (IPP) to troll for BitTorrent users.

IPP records and forwards the supposedly guilty IP addresses to the pornographers, the suit maintains, who then draft "nearly identical lawsuits" that allege that the defendants had been caught downloading porn.

The pornographers have recently started to file bills of discovery lawsuits in Florida that request approval for mass subpoenas to the ISPs associated with those IP addresses.

The subpoenas demand names and addresses associated with the harvested IP addresses.

That's when the phone calls begin.

As Wired's David Kravets points out, this is no war on piracy à la the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

The RIAA has waged battle against pirates with high-profile lawsuits against file-sharing service providers, by going after college students and parents of file-sharing children, and by trying to get ISPs to go along with a a three-strike warning system for file sharing that would lead to the ultimate castration of Internet service altogether.

In contrast, the lawsuit claims, pornographers have designed a "new business model" that's not set up to deter illegal downloads but is instead set up simply to reap profit.

Wired quoted Lory Lybeck, a Washington state attorney not connected to the Kentucky class action, who told Kravets that he's defending "hundreds" of clients accused of downloading porn:

"There’s a slime element associated with the porn cases, which makes it much more apparent than the music cases that there is an extortionist element to this."

Slimy doesn't even begin to describe how loathsome this is, as well as dangerous to the targeted victims.

Witness these words published by Queerty. The site claims they were written by a gay teen who says he'll kill himself if outed in a lawsuit against illegal filesharers:

Story on Queerty

I have not been able to eat and I am paralyzed with fear. If a letter comes, [my parents] will know immediately it is true and they will know this is what the terror they have been reading in my face is, I will not be believed if I try to say, like they have offered that, I was looking at ‘straight’ porn. I will be thrown out of the house, with nowhere to go and no options. I realize I was wrong but I was not profiting over it, I never uploaded a torrent, nor did I try to seed after it was done so I thought it would be okay, I do not have the money for any settlement and this will ruin my life. … If [I] get sued, I will end my life first.

Aaron James, who identifies himself as a single gay man, addressed this issue on a Quora discussion regarding how the porn industry has shot itself in its own foot by giving away free downloads:

"This is completely the studios' fault. If they want to control their content, they should never have allowed downloadable (and thereby shareable) content. They could prevent a lot of this by 'locking' down their content and just provide it via streaming video with log-in session tokens."

Or maybe the pornography purveyors could both defend copyrights and profits while also protecting individuals' privacy and potentially the lives of closeted young people, by following in the footsteps of the company that knows how to conduct file-sharing that's both profitable and affordable to the teens who are the least able to come up with the extortionists' fees: Apple.

As noted by UnicornBooty commenter Pezalinski, charging low fees for file-shared porn à la iTunes would accomplish a host of benefits:

  1. The porn studios would earn the profits they deserve,
  2. The porn studios wouldn't have to shell out the money for lawyers and the investigators who are tracking down IP addresses in these witch hunts,
  3. Teenagers would be able to afford legally obtained porn, and
  4. No teen - or anybody else, for that matter - would be terrified into suicidal thought or action at the idea of being outed.

LucretiusTwo thousand years ago, Lucretius put forward a radical idea in his poem On the Nature of Things: pleasure is not incompatible with virtue.

That idea is still radical.

Pleasure can be compatible with legality, as well. If the porn purveyors could follow a smarter pricing and delivery model, perhaps they could abandon the pairing of pleasure with shame.

The porn industry has apparently used that pairing to craft a weapon. They're using it to beat profits out of people.

There are better ways.

Computer porn download image, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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17 Responses to Porn studios accused of extortion in BitTorrent lawsuits

  1. Richard · 751 days ago

    "Teenagers would be able to afford legally obtained porn"

    Don't let the UK tabloids hear you say that - they're so convinced that porn is evil that they've redefined the terms "opt-in" and "opt-out" to try to force a porn-blocker on every UK resident.

    In their newspeak, "opt-in" means "you have to phone your ISP and ask for the filter to be turned off", and "opt-out" means "you have to phone your ISP and ask for the filter to be turned on".

    Maybe the spammers could learn from this example: "opt-in" means you have to contact the spammer and ask them not to send you spam.

  2. Lisa Vaas · 751 days ago

    The UK tabloids can go do things to themselves that I will refrain from mentioning, beyond, of course, the words baseball bat and unlubricated.

  3. Juan DaRiguero · 751 days ago

    "They're using it to beat profits out of people."

    Please explain how profit (which is a moral gain obtained through exchange of value in voluntary transactions) is anything like extortion...which is both illegal and immoral.

    You're paid out of profits. Your pay IS profit. Should we call that "extortion"?

    • Richard · 750 days ago

      So you're saying it's not possible to profit through immoral means or involuntary transactions? That someone who commits credit-card fraud to obtain large sums of money isn't "profiting" from it?

      • Juan DaRiguero · 749 days ago

        I'm saying that I don't use the word "profit" to mean two different things. Profit, by my definition, is moral. There's already a general word for credit card fraud. It's called theft.

        Look, suppose I make computers, or software, or any other product you find valuable enough to pay for it. You buy it. I get to feed my family. It's a win-win interaction. We BOTH profit from it. No one forced either one of us to participate in the transaction, and neither one of us defrauded the other. That's how you can tell it's profit.

        All I'm saying is that this nonsense of equating ill-gotten gains with "profit" is just silly. If you want to redefine profit as a dirty word -- something that ALWAYS means essentially the same thing as "theft" -- fine. But then what word do you use to represent a moral gain? Are you saying there's no such thing?

        Besides, I wasn't talking to you. I was asking Lisa to explain how profit (which I DID bother to define, and you didn't) is the same thing as extortion. Propagating such semantic confusion is hardly the essence of clear communication.

        • Richard · 749 days ago

          Nobody's trying to redefine the word "profit" to mean "theft". Simply put, profit is the net difference between income and expenditure; it makes no difference whether the income was obtained via moral or immoral means.

          • Juan DaRiguero · 748 days ago

            OK...I accept that that's your definition of profit. At least you've bothered to define how you use the term. Thanks for that.

            But if profit is a neutral term as you suggest, I do not understand its increasingly common use in a way that clearly associates it with ill-gotten gains, if not by conscious intent, then by implication. Do you not see the evidence of that particular tendency?

            • Richard · 746 days ago

              It's not just my definition of profit; look it up in any decent English dictionary. When referring to monetary gain, "profit" is never associated with a value judgement about its source.

              There's quite a lot of anti-Capitalist sentiment around in the Western world at the moment, largely due to the ongoing financial crisis which is seen to be a direct result of the greed of large banks. That might explain the prevalence of negative connotations surrounding the word "profit". When things settle down, the word will probably return to its original neutral status.

  4. Machin Shin · 751 days ago

    "They could prevent a lot of this by 'locking' down their content and just provide it via streaming video with log-in session tokens."

    That statement right there has got to be one of the most stupid things I have seen in some time. When are these people going to wake up and realize DRM DOES NOT WORK.

    All you have to do is go and look at any torrent site. You can find copies of just about everything. This even includes things such as Microsoft office, Windows, Adobe creative suite, movies, music, and pretty much anything else digital. Anyone that has delt with Adobe and Microsoft will know that they make heavy use of DRM and yet their stuff is pirated.

    You know what else? I often go out and buy software and then download and install the "pirated" copy because the stupid DRM breaks the program half the time. I have had less trouble with "pirated" copies of Windows than using the real copies. (And before anyone throws a fit, Although I downloaded windows I own the license to it so my use is still legal, or at least should be)

  5. Mike P · 751 days ago

    All this assumes that users' IP address is unchanging. However, nearly all private users of the internet, at least in the UK, do not have a 'fixed' IP but get one served when their system makes the connection to the ISP service. A reboot of the modem will result in a different IP.

    So they could be targetting the wrong person!

  6. How is this any different than the RIAA suing poor housewives and starving students for 500k or more (5k per song in some case)? I guess that's extortion too.

    Just because porn is nefarious and not well accepted doesn't mean they don't have the right to pursue IP infringement. Whether you hate porn or not doesn't change the fact that it cost money to make it. It represents an investment by the people who own the IP. It's monetized so it's their right to pursue damages in dollars.

    • Richard · 750 days ago

      If you'd read the article, you'd realise that they're *not* pursuing IP infringement; they're "trolling for file-sharing users regardless of whether they've actually downloaded porn".

      They're tracking down anyone who might possibly have used BitTorrent, and threatening to publicly claim that person was illegally downloading their porn movies.

      They don't care if that person has actually downloaded their porn movie;
      They don't care if that person has downloaded *anything* illegally;
      They don't even care if that person has ever used BitTorrent, or even knows what it is.

      They're just relying on the fact that a lot of people would be too embarrassed to have their name dragged through the mud, or wouldn't be able to afford to defend themselves in court, to extort money from them.

      It's equivalent to a policeman walking up to random people on the street and saying, "Hey, I just saw you coming out of that known S&M club, and if you don't give me a large sum of money *right now*, I'll tell everyone that's where you were."

    • Richard · 749 days ago

      Read the article: they're not pursing IP infringement, they're suing random people, many of whom have never even heard of BitTorrent, in the hopes that they'll pay up rather than face an embarrassing or expensive legal battle.

  7. Guest · 750 days ago

    Teenagers aren't allowed to obtain porn under most laws. I believe you have to be 18 here in Australia before you're allowed to view it...

    ... Of course that doesn't stop 13 year olds, but still. Don't encourage them :P

    • Richard · 750 days ago

      Eighteen- and nineteen- year-olds are still teenagers.

    • Richard · 749 days ago

      If you're 18 or 19, you're still a teenager. For the law to block teenagers from obtaining porn, the minimum age would have to be at least 20.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.