Over the past year or two , Leyendecker & Lemire has seen a huge rise in potential clients coming to us regarding lawsuits regarding illegal downloading of movies.  In the past two years there have been several prominent lawsuits filed against thousands of alleged infringers.  In fact,  a company called the US Copyright Group (“USCG”) has built a business of approaching independent film makers (usually films that have won OSCARS®) to allow USCG to enforce the rights on the film makers behalf.  I suspect there is a sharing agreement based on whatever USCG is able to collect from potential infringers.  Anyway, USCG files lawsuits with thousands of “John Doe” defendants, which are placeholders for people that have certain IP addresses that illegally download the movie through bit torrent sites.  USCG then subpoenas the ISP and gets the individuals identity.  Once they have the identity, they send a demand letter to the individual requesting thousands of dollars or the individual will be served in the lawsuit and face an award up to $150,000.00.  The two main movies we see this for is the Hurt Locker and Far Cry.  While some recent developments have potentially limited companies like USCG’s ability to sue thousands of defendants from various states in one lawsuit, there is still may be a threat that they could file against large groups of people in the state that they reside and this issue will be one that will continue into the near future.

There are usually two different categories the individuals that receive these notices 1) those that intentionally downloaded the materials and 2) those that have no earthly idea how they are involved in the situation.  The latter group is composed of parents with children, people with roommates and those with unsecured wireless routers.  Unfortunately these potentially innocent people are now unwittingly part of a mass shakedown that leverages the legal system.  In my opinion USCG’s business model strategically prices its “settlements” at a point that is a pretty big hit for the alleged infringer, but cheap enough that it doesn’t make economic sense to fight it in court.  Therefore, it makes economic sense for individuals to fork over thousands of dollars even if they haven’t done anything wrong.  This is especially true in the case of an unsecured wireless broadband router.  Many people don’t realize that when they purchase a wireless broadband router that its default configuration is set to have the security features disabled.  Therefore, anyone that receives the wireless signal can log on and surf the web using your broadband connection – your next door neighbor, the person that live above or below you in an apartment complex or someone sitting in their car outside your residence with a smart phone or laptop.  Moreover, your IP address is associated with everything that the individual does while they are on-line.  Furthermore, since the demand letters often come more than 4 months after the movie was downloaded, figuring out who did it can often be hard as most consumer routers do not keep their audit logs for long, so any evidence that could help prove your innocence and get you out of the suit quickly is likely to be long gone.  Therefore you are left with the choice to either pay the settlement or pay even more in legal fees to defend the suit.  A much scarier scenario is if the 3rd party is utilizing your IP address to attempt to hack networks or download child pornography.  In that case you could have law enforcement knocking at your door.

So the big takeaway:  Be sure to enable the security features of your wireless broadband router.  If you don’t know how, find someone trustworthy to help you out.  Otherwise you could be headed for a whole host of legal problems.