A federal judge has ruled that a Canadian adult film producer cannot subpoena the identities en masse of over 1,000 "John Doe" defendants whom the producers accused of sharing their films and violating their copyright. Quebec-based VPR Internationale had obtained the IP addresses of 1,017 users that they suspected of sharing their copyrighted films over the Internet, and wanted a federal court to sign off on subpoenaing the subscribers' identities from their ISPs.
Judge Harold Baker's ruling denying VPR's request has been lauded as a victory of judicial common sense against abuses of the legal system. Even though this will probably put me in the minority among self-described civil libertarians, I beg to disagree. First, because I don't think that subpoenaing a defendant's identity from a service provider constitutes an abuse of the legal system in and of itself. But more importantly, whether or not one agrees with the judge's decision, I think it contained plenty of logical errors, including a paragraph near the end which literally averaged about one error per sentence.
But back up for a second. Some of you are already thinking: What is a math major doing making legal criticisms of a ruling of a federal judge? So here's what I mean in each instance where I say that the judge made a "logical error": I mean that if you were to take the point made by the judge, and take the opposite point made by someone who disagreed, and you asked a group of experts (certainly if you asked a group of mathematicians, but probably even if you asked a group of lawyers) to read the two points and vote on which one was right, and you didn't tell them which position was the one taken by the judge — that most of the respondents would vote that the judge's position was incorrect.
Conversely, I'm always interested in hearing why people think I might be mistaken, if they say exactly what I've said that they think is incorrect, and why. In my most recent article, I offered a cash prize split between readers who submitted arguments that I was wrong (or, really, that my idea needed more work), and I enjoyed the responses so much that I ended up paying out more than the originally stated prize total. But if someone tries pulling rank and saying that I should defer to them on a legal question because they are a lawyer, law student, Supreme Court justice etc., here's the question I want them to answer: If we rounded up 10 lawyers to act as expert "voters," and showed each of them my argument and the heckler's counter-argument, and didn't tell the voters which argument was made by the math major and which one was made by the law school graduate, for whose argument would the majority vote? If the heckler won't explicitly make that claim, then there's no reason to take them seriously — because, obviously, if only 5 out of any given 10 lawyers would agree with their point, then why should we listen to the 5 who agree, instead of the other 5 who don't? (This does not apply if someone is making a bona fide argument — then the argument can be analyzed on its own terms. But if it's a good argument, the person shouldn't have to invoke their credentials to make it.)
Back to Judge Baker. His argument in support of his ruling begins on the second page, by rejecting the plaintiff's analogy between ISPs and car rental agencies:
VPR compares the Doe defendants' IP addresses to "records of who rented which car at a busy car rental agency, in that IP addresses are like cars "leased by subscribers. If a plaintiff was injured by a rental car, the plaintiff can discover the information on who leased the car from the agency by specifying the license plate of the offending vehicle and the date and time when the injury occurred. Without access to the agency's records, all the plaintiff has is the identity of the rental agency, but not who was driving the rental car." The comparison is not apt. The rental agency owns the car and is a potential defendant, so the adversarial process would yield the driver's information.
Huh? If you're injured by a rental car, how is the rental agency a "potential defendant"? Well, technically, anybody in the world is a "potential defendant" — you can put anyone's name on a lawsuit until a court shoots you down — but since that would make the phrase meaningless, presumably Judge Baker meant that the rental agency would be a legitimate potential defendant, one whom the accident victim would be justified in suing. So again: Huh? Why is a rental car agency liable for an accident caused by one of its renters? Obviously if the rental car agency was negligent in the maintenance of one of its vehicles and that negligence led to the accident, they might be liable — but not simply if their customer did something reckless over which they had no control (which would be analogous to an ISP subscriber committing a copyright infringement that the ISP didn't know about).
So, to translate that into vote-off terms as discussed above. What I mean is that if you took these two points:
- "The analogy between an ISP and a rental car agency is inappropriate, because a plaintiff could sue the rental car agency in order to subpoena the identity of the renter that hit them, but a copyright owner could not do the same to an ISP." [Judge Baker's argument.]
- "The statement that the analogy is inappropriate, makes no sense. In either situation, the plaintiff wants to sue a customer of a third-party company, when the third-party company itself is probably not liable. So in either case, the plaintiff can sue a 'John Doe' defendant, and subpoena the company for the customer's identity. One could argue that this should be permitted in both cases, or prohibited in both cases, but no reason has been given as to why they should be treated differently." [My argument.]
and asked lawyers or mathematicians to vote on which was more correct, and you didn't tell them which argument was made by a judge and which argument was made by a math major, that the second point would get more votes. (I certainly think that if you fibbed and told your respondents that the first argument was made by a defendant, and the second argument was made by a judge in rejecting the defendant's line of reasoning, that most people would vote, "The judge is right." That would be cheating — playing on people's tendency to believe that a judge's reasoning is usually superior — but I could point out that if respondents are really evaluating the two arguments objectively, then it shouldn't matter!)
I'm not going to convert every such disagreement highlighted here into the point-counterpoint format; I think in each case it should be non-controversial how the conversion would go.
To proceed: in claiming that subpoenaing a rental car agency for the identity of their customer is not analogous to subpoenaing an ISP for the identity of their subscriber, Judge Baker adds: "And such information is not necessarily confidential; accident reports and police records may also identify the driver." True, but what does this have to do with anything? The question is: given a certain probability that a company's customer is guilty, is it appropriate to let a plaintiff subpoena the customer's identity from that company? If some customers in similar situations have had their identities made public by other circumstances, the judge's ruling gives no reason why that should be relevant at all, in a situation where the customer's identity is not public.
Judge Baker then raises the point that the customers to whom the IP addresses were assigned might not be the actual infringers:
Moreover, VPR ignores the fact that IP subscribers are not necessarily copyright infringers. Carolyn Thompson writes in an MSNBC article of a raid by federal agents on a home that was linked to downloaded child pornography. The identity and location of the subscriber were provided by the ISP. The desktop computer, iPhones, and iPads of the homeowner and his wife were seized in the raid. Federal agents returned the equipment after determining that no one at the home had downloaded the illegal material. Agents eventually traced the downloads to a neighbor who had used multiple IP subscribers' Wi-Fi connections.
Well, true — the assignee of the IP address might not be the actual copyright infringer. But, more generally, being named as a defendant in a lawsuit does not mean that you're at fault anyway — that's what the trial is for. For a court to take a plaintiff's case against a given defendant seriously, they just have to believe that there is a reasonable probability of the plaintiff winning. If the VPR has a list of IP addresses of users sharing out their copyrighted material, it may be true that not literally all of those infringers are living in the household that the IP address has been assigned to — but what percentage of them probably are? 90% or more? In any other scenario, wouldn't that have been considered quite a "reasonable" likelihood that the plaintiff had a legitimate case against a defendant, and that the case should go forward so that more facts can be brought to light, with the expectation that those facts would move you to a higher degree of certainty about whether the defendant was in fact at fault?
On the same note, Judge Baker goes on to say:
"The list of IP addresses attached to VPR's complaint suggests, in at least some instances, a similar disconnect between IP subscriber and copyright infringer. The ISPs include a number of universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, and the University of Minnesota, as well as corporations and utility companies."
But there is no reason to think that in the case of these entities, there would be any more "disconnect" between the actual infringer and the user on the network that the IP address had been assigned to. In fact, in the case of, say, a corporate network, it's more likely that an IP address would have been assigned by the IT department to a specific, trackable user, and not shared out on an unsecured Wi-Fi network where the IP could have been hi-jacked by a car parked on the street, a scenario that's probably more likely for a home network. I'm moderately confident that if you compared commercial home ISPs to corporations and looked at the percentage of times that the "user of record" for an IP address according to the logs was the same as the actual person using it, that percentage would be higher for a corporation than for an ISP serving home users. In any case, Judge Baker certainly gives no reason to expect that it would be lower.
Now here we get to the home stretch, the last paragraph on page 2, where I'm claiming almost one logical error or non sequitur per sentence:
- "As VPR points out,
ex parte motions for expedited discovery have been granted in similar cases in other districts;
among the thousands of Does in those cases, relatively few motions to quash have been filed."
I'm not even sure what Judge Baker is saying here, but given the context, it seems to be: The innocent John Does' only defense against abuse of the discovery process is to quash the subpoenas (basically, file a motion saying "I'm not guilty, so the plaintiff can't have my identity"), but that's been relatively rare, so we can't rely on that as a defense against abuses of the system. Of course, there could be a simpler explanation as to why it's rare: Perhaps a lot of the John Doe defendants thus named are, in fact, guilty! I certainly don't want to take the position that anyone who doesn't deny their guilt is guilty — but we shouldn't assume that they're innocent, either. Come on — it's not that hard for a copyright holder to join a p2p network or find a Torrent tracker, and get a list of the IP address of a few users who are sharing or downloading their content illegally. Is it that hard to believe that most of the users on that list are probably doing what VPR said they were doing?
at least one case, counsel has sought leave to amend the complaint to add more Doe defendants.
See Lightspeed Media Corp. v. Does 1 - 100, Case No. 1:10-cv-05604, d/e 16 (N.D. Ill.) (seeking
leave to add Does 101 - 1000 as defendants)."
Uh, OK. Plaintiff started with a list of 100 defendants, and then expanded it to 1,000. What does this have to do with the legitimacy, generally, of suing John Doe defendants and subpoenaing their identities?
"In Hard Drive Productions, Inc. v. Does 1 - 1000,
counsel sought leave to dismiss more than 100 Doe defendants, stating that some of the Does had
'reached a mutually satisfactory resolution of their differences' with the plaintiff."
Well, yeah, that's what you're supposed to do — try and settle out of court instead of bringing every single case before a judge. How does the fact that some plaintiffs settled make it less legitimate to sue John Doe defendants in the first place?
"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 VPR has competent evidence to prove its case."
Now these are actually all fair points. The logical error is that they apply to any lawsuit — Judge Baker makes no argument why these problems would be more pronounced in a lawsuit against 1,000 John Does.
In fact, some of these problems would probably be less severe in the case of a lawsuit against 1,000 John Doe defendants than in the case of a lawsuit against a single, named defendant. If you're one of 1,000 people who is accused of illegally downloading an adult movie, then even if the plaintiff learns your identity, it's unlikely that your name is going to appear in any articles about the case — far less likely than if you're the only defendant in the lawsuit. And if, out of over 1,000 defendants, there are at least several dozen who decide to fight the case, they'd be more likely to be able to split the costs of hiring a good lawyer than if only one defendant was named who had to pay all the costs on their own. Both embarrassment and legal fees are less of a burden when you can share them with hundreds of other people.
Now, I'd be happy to live under a legal regime that reached either conclusion — it's not an egregious miscarriage of justice if plaintiffs are able to subpoena the identities of ISP subscribers who show a high probability of being guilty, but it's not an egregious miscarriage of justice if they aren't, either. I think we need more healthy skepticism about the reasoning that judges use to reach those conclusions.
The practice of "judge-bashing" is unfortunately associated in most people's minds with extremists, usually on the right wing, but my reason for being skeptical is simple and non-partisan. Suppose that you were take, say, an economic argument published by a prominent economist, and asked the public to identify what they thought were "mistakes" and submit counter-points to those specific points in the argument. Then, suppose for each such disagreement, you asked an independent panel of economists to vote on who was right without saying which was the point made by the economist and which was the counter-point made by the layperson. (I'm not talking about errors that the author would voluntarily correct once they were pointed out; rather, points where they "dig their heels in" and refuse to back down.) I think it would be quite rare to find a disagreement where the experts were split 50/50 on whether the economist or the layperson was right, and extremely rare to find cases where 80% of the experts voted with the layperson. By contrast, polling my lawyer buddies about this or that part of a judge's reasoning, the 50/50 splits are extremely common, and there were quite a few cases where the vast majority agreed that a judge's reasoning was wrong — but always with the same shrug that there's not much you can do about it.