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The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit

Innocents Caught in Porn "Copywright Troll" Suits

Attorneys for the adult film industry suing to stop porn piracy. But what if you didn't do it?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Attorneys for the adult film industry suing to stop porn piracy. But Bobbie Jean Thomas, 78, of Richmond is one person who said she isn't guilty of illegal fire sharing. Vicky Nguyen reports. (Published Tuesday, Jul 3, 2012)

    First it was music,  now it's porn. Attorneys for the adult film industry are taking a page from the music industry and filing mass lawsuits to stop porn piracy. They say the illegal file sharing is cutting deeply into profits, and those who play without paying must be stopped. Problem is, Innocent people are getting swept up in the internet dragnet.

    Bobbie Jean Thomas, 78, says she is one of them. The disabled senior lives in Richmond with her daughter, who runs a daycare center in the shared space. Thomas says she was shocked and scared last year when she received a letter from her internet service provider saying they were being subpoenaed to release her name because her account's IP address was linked to illegal file sharing.

    "I know I didn’t do it, I hardly know how to turn the computer on," Thomas said. "It’s very ridiculous. If I were downloading anything it probably would’ve been some gospel music."

    Thomas says she then received a letter from attorney Ira Siegel of Beverly Hills, threatening to sue her for the downloading and sharing of a copyrighted adult film. She's not the only one. NBC Bay Area also spoke with a woman who lives near Austin, Texas, who shared a similar story. She asked not to be named, but says she and her husband, an Iraq war veteran, were accused of file sharing a lesbian porn flick. "On the actual date and time [of the alleged download], we were sitting on the couch watching the "Survivor" finale with our 12-year-old child." She says there's "no way" anyone was illegally sharing porn from her Internet account. She also adds, "We have a password protected, non static IP address."

    These two women are just two examples of what attorney Mitch Stoltz calls victims of "copyright trolls." Stoltz is a staff attorney specializing copyright and intellectual property law for the San Francisco- based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    "They don’t really care who they’re targeting; they don’t really care whether people have actually infringed their clients’ copyrights or not," Stoltz said. He says the so-called "trolls" use special software to identify IP addresses they suspect of stealing copyrighted materials. Then they file mass lawsuits against thousands of “John Does” threatening to sue unless the defendant agrees to settle for a few thousand dollars.

    "A lot of times they’ll say 'pay us and we’ll go away,'" said Stoltz.

    But Las Vegas attorney Marc Randazza, who represents a major adult film company, says in the 30,000 cases he’s pursued – only 4 of the accused were innocent. 

    "These companies now will put out a DVD or a movie online and within 24 hours they will find 20 to 30 thousand pirated copies," says Randazza. He says the lawsuits are working to cut down on porn piracy. "We have found since we started this lawsuit campaign that piracy has gone down on my clients’ materials 75 to 80 percent and we have found revenue has gone up. Less people are stealing it, more people are buying it. The right thing is happening."

    Randazza is not one of the attorneys involved in the suits . But he insists the number of innocent people who are scared into settlin is tiny. "I think that happens as often as you see a unicorn.  People don’t pay because they didn’t do it. People pay because they did it or it wasn’t them and it was somebody in their household," he says.

    Bobbie Jean Thomas says she has no idea how she ended up as a defendant, but insists she is innocent. With the help of her goddaughter, a paralegal, she filed a motion to quash the lawsuit. Nearly a year later, a judge dismissed the entire suit. "I was very relieved," says Thomas. "I’m too old to go to jail for a movie I didn’t even see."

    We contacted Beverly Hills based attorney Ira Siegel, and law firm Prenda Law, who is behind the lawsuit involving the Texas woman who spoke to NBC Bay Area. They declined to comment on the cases involving the women in our story.

    There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from being named in this type of suit. First, don’t download and share copyrighted material without permission. Second, make sure your internet connection is password protected. That won't guarantee you won’t be named in a lawsuit, but it will prevent other people from using your wifi connection for illegal activity. And if you do receive a letter accusing you of illegally downloading something you didn't find a copyright attorney to help you. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a list of attorneys who have offered to help people at reduced or no charge.

    There's a guide here for how you can also file a "pro se" motion, to represent yourself, for minimal cost.