Attorney John Steele says he has sued more than 20,000 Internet users. Now he's the one in legal trouble.
“It should be clear by now that this court’s focus has shifted from protecting intellectual property rights to attorney misconduct.” — U.S. District Judge Otis Wright
John Steele, the lawyer who told me he’d made “millions” going after people who illegally download pornographic movies, is experiencing some legal trouble of his own. A district judge in Los Angeles has questions about the way in which Steele and his colleagues have conducted their litigation. Ars Technica and Popehat have been providing detailed (and often gleeful) coverage of a series of hearings that may lead to the unraveling of hundreds of lawsuits filed by Steele and his colleagues at Prenda Law against alleged XXX-movie lovers whose IP addresses were caught downloading the films online.
Steele and his colleagues have been pursuing “John Does” who download XXX films without paying for them for copyright violations. When I interviewed him last year, he told me he had filed over 350 of these suits, and that he was at that time suing approximately 20,000 people. The tactic is similar to the one employed by the recording industry years ago, but where RIAA wanted to scare people out of illegal downloads by getting massive, scary judgments in highly publicized cases against individual Napster users, Steele and the lawyers like him are content to get relatively small settlements — deal letters often ask for $3000 or so — from individuals who pay up quietly to avoid being named in public court filings for allegedly watching a film such as “Illegal Ass 2.”
But now Steele and his firm are starting to run into serious problems.
Ed. note: This post appears courtesy of our friends at Techdirt. We’ll be sharing law-related posts from Techdirt from time to time in these pages.
Just a few weeks ago, we had a story about how an awesome looking documentary about comic artists needed to hit up Kickstarter to raise more money solely to purchase licenses to some of the artwork & video clips in the film. Most of the copyright holders let them use the work for free, but a few were demanding payment — often thousands of dollars for a single image or short clip. As we’ve noted, documentary filmmakers are scared to death of relying on fair use, because they don’t want to get sued (and some insurance providers won’t give you insurance if you plan to rely on fair use).
And, now, there’s an even crazier example. Two huge fans of the cult favorite TV show, Arrested Development have made a documentary about the show, talking to a ton of people who created and acted in the show, as well as to a bunch of fans. Given that a new season (via Netflix) is quickly approaching, getting this documentary out would make sense. The film is finished according to the filmmakers. Done done done. So why are they asking Kickstarter for $20,053? Yup, you guessed it. Copyright licensing issues. And this time, it’s really crazy…
It was just days after Aaron Swartz’ death, and I was having a crisis of conscience about publishing in a journal that was not open access…. The best Taylor & Francis could come up with was a less restrictive license that would cost authors nearly $3000 per article. The Board agreed that this alternative was simply not tenable, so we collectively resigned. In a sense, the decision was as much a practical one as a political one.
– Chris Bourg, formerly an editor at the Journal of Library Administration describing the motivation behind the resignation of the Editor-in-Chief and the entire editorial board. It’s the latest fallout from the suicide of Aaron Swartz after the government threatened him with 35 years in prison for challenging the exclusive rights of publishing giants like Taylor & Francis.
* First the law school rankings, now urine-based video games? It’s been a whirlwind week of heavy journalism for U.S. News. [U.S. News]
* Did you ask for a diorama of the Supreme Court? Because I did… [Washington Post]
* What do SCOTUSblog and “Girls” share in common? If you guessed that Tom Goldstein spends most of his day at the office naked, you’re (probably) wrong. [Peabody Awards]
* Casinos have systematically driven men out of the bartending and cocktail serving market. They use a fig leaf to protect themselves from Title VII… apparently literally. [Workplace Prof Blog]
* Dartmouth professor Sonu Bedi argues that same-sex marriage is really about the separation of church and state. You say potato, I say egregious denial of basic rights. [Huffington Post]
* UBS trying to get out of an SEC case. Color me surprised. [Dealbreaker]
* Central New Mexico Community College does not want to hear that sex talk. It makes Sol the Suncat sad. [Popehat]
* As mentioned before, there’s a new legal dispute over whether or not Sherlock Holmes has lapsed into the public domain. Alex Heimbach of Slate puts the case under the proverbial magnifying glass. [Slate]
* Prosecutor charges America’s official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, for failing to accurately predict the weather. Good to know Pennsylvania prosecutors are on top of the groundhog beat after messing up the “sexual predator coaching a football program” beat for about a decade. [Washington Times]
* UPDATE: Judge Easterbrook is getting hitched to former Anchorage City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein on May 12. [Anchorage Daily News]
* Tattoo convention discusses copyrights. As long as I don’t have to remove the giant butterfly tat on the small of my back I’m cool. [Washington Post]
* Defending yourself from solicitation charges counts as “Official Senate Business?” Actually, that sounds about right. [Lowering the Bar]
* UChiLawGo sums up the end of law school. [UChiLawGo]
* Sad news, “Mississippi State Rep. Jessica Upshaw (R), an attorney who had been a lawmaker since 2004, was found dead at the home of former state Rep. Clint Rotenberry (R) in Mendenhall, Mississippi…Mississippi Bureau of Investigation spokesman Warren Strain said it did not appear to be a natural death.” This is the fifth Mississippi lawmaker to die in five months. The other four all died of natural causes…so they say. [Jezebel]
* David and Elie will be showing up at Georgetown this Thursday afternoon. RSVP at the linked ACS site. [ACS]
* I’ve got a feeling “Bart Simpson” isn’t going to get a fair trial from this judge. [Lowering the Bar]
* The Supreme Court strikes a blow for copyright sanity by telling publishers that they can’t go after people reselling books published overseas. Now the only incentives to move your publishing operation overseas are the cents per hour wages and the lax health and safety standards. [Volokh Conspiracy]
* The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is… the same bad guy with a gun. [Legal Juice]
* Following up yesterday’s link to Professor Richard Epstein’s AMA, Ken White of Popehat exposed himself to the same onslaught. [Reddit]
* About 11 years too late, the NFL rescinded its ridiculous “Tuck Rule,” which was always hard to understand, but basically ruled that an otherwise obvious fumble allowed the player to ditch his actress baby momma and marry a Victoria’s Secret model. [USA Today]
* This guy is VERY specific about what gigs he’s willing to play. And he’s also, apparently, a registered sex offender. [Lawyers, Guns & Money]
Everyone loves doing the Harlem Shake, the latest dance craze to take YouTube by storm. Your friends have done it, law students have done it, and even Justin Timberlake has done it on Saturday Night Live. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and everyone wants to get involved, but eventually, the fun has got to stop — and as is usually the case with these viral videos, that stopping point comes quicker than a former Biglaw partner having a mid-life crisis.
This time, the fun is stopping because the ultimate party-killers are now on the scene to assess the damage. That’s right: lawyers are poking their noses into the Harlem Shake because of — you guessed it — copyright violations.
Let’s talk about the underlying legal claims before you feel the need to put on a Halloween costume in March and violently flail around to a 30-second music clip on film….
* Court rules that overlapping elements between romance novels do not amount to infringement. I mean, there’s only so many ways to phrase “throbbing member.” [Courthouse News Service]
* Pinellas County, Florida (Tampa Bay area) returns to using fluoridated water after a governmental sea change brought on by the issue. Don’t they understand the Communist plot to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids? [Tampa Bay Times]
* In fairness, I think pro se litigants generally have a pretty good ineffective assistance claim. [Lowering the Bar]
* The D.C. Circuit managed to irritate both environmentalists and industry by affirming Fish and Wildlife’s designation of polar bears as “threatened.” It’s a nice middle ground. You know who else would appreciate some middle ground? A polar bear clinging to a shrinking ice floe. [Volokh Conspiracy]
* Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thinks kids need a healthier respect for the American democratic process. It would be unfortunate if the will of a democratic majority could get hijacked by five partisan hacks. [Courthouse News Service]
* Following up on yesterday’s profile of Lindsay Lohan’s attorney Mark Heller, the judge declared him “incompetent.” Fair enough. [TMZ]
* For any Catholics hitting up PaddyPower to lay down money on the conclave, you’ve probably had some restless nights wondering if Pope Gregory XIV’s edict per the Ius Decretalium still applies. It doesn’t. That’s a load off. [Canon Law Blog]
* A number of strip clubs are challenging San Antonio’s new regulations. One key to their argument: “the presentation of expressive dance performances is a beneficial social activity which creates an improved self image for the dancer….” Yeah, good luck with that argument. [KEGL]
* If you’re looking for emotional distress damages, maybe lay off the “I’m just embarrassed to be seen with him now” arguments. [Lowering the Bar]
* To challenge the law letting the government tap your communications in secret, you need to have full knowledge that the secret recording is happening. Thanks Joseph Heller. [Volokh Conspiracy]
* The new Copyright Alert System goes into effect, allowing copyright holders to make your service provider slow your Internet to a crawl if you’re identified as a repeat violator. I don’t see what the big deal is, but then again, I’m still using a Prodigy account. [Gawker]
* MC Hammer is softening, but still a tad miffed after police booked him for an expired registration after he told them, “U Can’t Touch This.” [Los Angeles Times]
* Are you kidding? University of North Carolina’s “Honor Court” is threatening to expel a student for “intimidating” her attacker by discussing that she was raped — without identifying her attacker. This is why North Carolina can’t have nice things. [Feministing]
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We currently have a number of active openings for associate roles at US and UK firms in HK / China, Singapore and two new in-house openings. As always, please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org in order to get details of current openings in Asia, as well as to discuss the Asia markets in general and what we expect for openings later this year. Our Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney will be in Beijing the week of March 25 and Evan Jowers will be in Hong Kong the week of April 1, if you would like to meet them in person.
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The last time I flapped my wings your way, I tried to make at least enough noise about your mobile phone to make you more than a little bit uncomfortable. I hope I did. If enough of us become anxious enough about the known and unknown unknowns and knowns in our mobile phones, then we can start making wise decisions about how to manage that information and its resultant investigations.
Today, I’d like to put a finer point on the last installment’s topic by asking a question that seemed to catch most attendees off-guard at a conference panel that I moderated last week: is there discoverable personal information in a mobile app? Our panelists’ answer was a uniform “yes” with one stating that, if he had to choose only one type of data that he could discover from a mobile phone, he’d choose app data. Why? Because there’s simply so much of it and because almost all of it is objective – not just user-created like an email – but machine-tracked like GPS, usage duration, log in and log out times, browsed web addresses, browsed actual addresses. Also, most of us seem to have the idea that data doesn’t actually “stick” to our mobile devices the way it “sticks” to our hard drives. Maybe there’s a disconnect based on the fact that our phones are mobile so we assume the data is mobile to?
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