Benchslaps, Copyright, Cyberlaw, Federal Judges, Intellectual Property, Pornography, Privacy, Technology

Suing Hundreds of Anonymous People Will Not Make You Popular

It’s not everyday you get porn, file sharing lawsuits, amateur motions to quash subpoenas, and a federal judge quoting Shakespeare’s King John, all wrapped up in a nice legal bundle of joy.

Here we go, from the beginning:

Chicago attorney John Steele, whose firm website is located at, represents CP Productions, the filmmakers behind — wait for it — Cowgirl Creampie. The movie was part of their website, (obviously NSFW; I can’t believe I just looked that up in Starbucks).

On behalf of his client, Steele sued 300 people who allegedly downloaded and shared the movie via BitTorrent. No one actually knew, however, who these supposed downloaders were. The plaintiffs only had IP addresses — not names, phone numbers or mailing addresses.

Steele subpoenaed various Internet service providers to get the personal data. He spent months unsuccessfully trying to contact all of the defendants, who lived conveniently in a single Chicago apartment building all over the damn country….

Nate Anderson at Ars Technica has been following the saga:

Judge Milton Shadur was clearly annoyed that the litigation has been taking up his docket space. Back on February 7, he issued a memo saying, “It is an understatement to characterize [this case] as problematic in nature.” Four months after filing, Steele had still not contacted all of the case’s defendants. The judge wanted to toss the case.

Steele objected in a filing the next day, saying the delay was all the fault of ISPs, who were so backed up filling IP address lookup requests for other P2P lawyers that they just hadn’t had time to get around to Steele’s.

Two weeks later, one of the anonymous defendants sent in a motion to quash the subpoenas (apparently by mailing it to the judge’s chambers). That was all Shadur needed.

“Among other things, the newest motion demonstrates that there is no justification for dragging into an Illinois federal court, on a wholesale basis, a host of unnamed defendants over whom personal jurisdiction clearly does not exist and — more importantly — as to whom CP’s counsel could readily have ascertained that fact.”

Shadur quoted Shakespeare and said CP Productions needed to contact all the would-be defendants and tell them they were “free to ignore the matter.”

Last week, Steele had to return to court to figure out the best way to do that, but he wasn’t finished fighting. He wanted to charge the downloaders with conspiracy too. And the article says, “Steele even said one anonymous defendant had committed ‘fraud’ on the court by listing ‘Possible John Doe’ as his name.”

The no-nonsense judge threw the book at Steele. Shadur said the “ill-considered lawsuit… abused the litigation system in more than one way.” Ars Technica’s Anderson had fun describing the scene:

[Steele] identified himself and then had to stand in silence as the judge dropped his previously genial manner and proceeded to read the riot act to Steele and steamroll his case.

“I accepted you at your word,” said the judge, pointing to Steele’s assertion that the case was connected to Illinois. But, after allowing Steel to take discovery and issue subpoenas to Internet providers, “I start getting motions to quash” from places like Tennessee, Texas, New Jersey, from “people that had nothing at all to do with the state of Illinois.”

But our courageous litigator refused to give up. The CP Productions case went down in Illinois’ Northern District. But Steele also filed nearly identical suits in the state’s Central and Southern Districts.

In the Southern District, he represents adult entertainment producer VPR Internationale (based in Montreal, Canada, weirdly) and wants to sue 1,017 horny teenage boys Internet pirates. Judge Harold Baker also had stern words for Steele last week, as he denied a motion for expedited discovery:

“Plainly stated, the court is concerned that the expedited ex parte discovery is a fishing expedition by means of a perversion of the purpose and intent of Fed. R. Civ. P. 23.”

Is there a point to this? Yes, actually.

If you download or share music illegally, you still might have to pay the piper. The thing is, usually entertainment companies just go after individuals, not masses of anonymous cyberfolk. But recently, some “copyright trolls” (as Internet advocates like to call the plaintiffs in these cases), like John Steele, have attempted so-called “reverse class-action suits.”

For a while, it seemed to work. A firm representing the producers of Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker and a movie based on the video game Far Cry sued thousands of alleged downloaders with some success. But judges in several states (including West Virginia and Texas) are sick of dealing with the jurisdictional issues and the difficulty of simply procuring the defendants’ personal info from their ISPs.

It looks like downloaders might not have to worry about getting hit with this type of suit much longer. But just in case, they might want to keep this guy’s DIY illegal download defense documents within reach.

UPDATE: Steele has responded at length in the comments section. Here’s a snippet of what he wrote: “[E]verything is proceeding nicely, names are coming in, Pirates are settling, my client is recouping lost revenue due to THEFT, and things are going so nicely that the EFF wants to get in on representing the Defendants.”

Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or e-mail him at You can read more of his work at

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