Written by attorney Nicholas H. Jefferson

Bit Torrent Users Beware. Mass Copyright Infringement Lawsuits Come to Kansas.

Like any new technological innovation, the internet is a powerful tool that can be indispensably helpful, or can get a user into a great deal of trouble. With the advent of broadband technology, individuals from all parts of the world can share enormous amounts of information in a very short amount of time. Unfortunately, sometimes this willingness to share freely can bring complications for internet users.

In the last few years a number of high profile cases have been brought against individuals and businesses alike for copyright infringement. These cases have revolved around the use of bit torrent technology to share music, as well as movies, from Hollywood blockbusters to pornographic films. Recently, a Canadian company named reFX Audio Software, Inc. has filed almost twenty cases around the country, including two in the United States District Court of Kansas, for copyright infringement of its software.

Regardless of the exact material that is claimed to be infringed upon, the cases typically progress in the same manner. First, either the company, or its representative will “seed" a pirated version of the company’s own copyrighted material on the internet, and make it available through bit torrent technology. In general, bit torrent technology allows for the fast transfer of large files because the downloader takes small pieces of the file from several sources all at once. Once a person downloads the file, it will become available from them to other users, and they will become an uploader of that file as well. Through this file, the company is able to track the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of those who download and subsequently upload the material using the bit torrent technology. An IP address is a number that is assigned to each computer participating in a computer network. In general, this number is assigned by the user’s Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Once the company has amassed enough alleged infringers’ IP addresses, it will file a suit against a number of “John Does" identified only by the IP addresses. Next, the company will serve subpoenas on the various ISP’s in an effort to force the ISP’s to link the IP addresses of the alleged infringers with the actual businesses or individuals that hold the accounts. It is at this point that an individual or business owner will learn that he or she may become subject to a copyright infringement lawsuit. The ISP’s will contact the affected account holders and let them know that, unless the account holder takes some type of legal action by a certain date, such as filing a Motion to Quash the subpoena or contacting that Plaintiff to work out a settlement, the ISP will comply with the subpoena.

If the ISP does comply with the subpoena and hands over the account holder’s information, the company will very likely follow up with a letter to the account holder seeking a settlement. The letter will normally state, that if the account holder does not wish to be named publically in a copyright infringement suit, the account holder can settle for a specified amount of money. If the account holder does not settle, the company may amend its petition, name the account holder in the suit and potentially pursue a copyright infringement claim against it.

Although much has been written questioning the validity and the ethics behind the filing of these lawsuits, if you end up as a potential defendant, the most important thing is protecting yourself. It is imperative that anyone who is identified by a company as a potential copyright infringer in one of these suits seek the advice of an attorney immediately. Although these cases are brought against a mass of “John Does," each situation can be quite unique depending on the individual circumstances of the account holder. Defending a case for an individual who lives alone with a single computer connected directly to a modem can be very different than defending a business owner that provides free Wi-Fi for the public as part of his or her business. Ultimately the facts and circumstances surrounding each account holder will need to be evaluated to bring about the best possible outcome for the account holder involved.

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