Are indie moviemakers targeting illegal downloads -- or just lining their own pockets?

Are indie moviemakers targeting illegal downloads -- or just lining their own pockets?
Chris Whetzel

The bad news arrived in John Doe 2,057's mailbox in May. His wife unsealed a thick envelope from Comcast and read a carefully worded message explaining that a company called Imperial Enterprises Inc. had filed a lawsuit against him in Washington, D.C., federal court. He stood accused of having illegally downloaded a copyrighted film five months earlier, at precisely 6:03 a.m. on the morning of January 27. The name of the Imperial Enterprises movie he purportedly purloined wasn't mentioned until four pages later. Though printed in tiny italic font in a court filing, it practically leaped off the page: Tokyo Cougar Creampies.

Yet when Mrs. Doe set eyes on that ignominious title, she couldn't help but crack a smile at the absurdity of the situation. Her husband is legally blind, with vision roughly 1/100th of that of a person with normal sight. He is physically incapable of watching any film, this particular porno included.

"To be honest, it's a little ridiculous," Doe 2,057 says with a rueful chuckle. "My movie-watching ability is nonexistent. My kids watch movies, but they are four and six, so they don't watch porn either. Well, hopefully they don't."

Chris Whetzel
Chris Whetzel

The amusement quickly turned to anxiety. Doe, then living in Santa Clara, California, had just accepted a job in the network-security division of a Seattle software company. (He is able to work using a pair of computer programs that read his e-mails aloud and magnify a portion of his computer screen.) The mere suggestion that he swaps illicit smut online could jeopardize his career.

At least at the outset, he could remain anonymous. The attorneys for Imperial Enterprises tracked his Internet protocol (IP) address, the unique number assigned to a computer when it connects to the Web, but they didn't yet — and perhaps still don't — know his real name. He is referred to in the court documents as John Doe 2,057, and he requested anonymity for this story, fearing repercussions if his employer learns of the lawsuit. But as he learned via his letter from Comcast, Imperial's lawyers had already asked the judge to order the cable company to identify him.

Doe remains adamant that he is innocent. Seated in his suburban Seattle apartment clad in black slacks and a black turtleneck, his eyes visibly disfigured from ocular illness that leaves him living his life in a literal blur, the network-security professional recounts the rookie mistake that got him into this mess.

"I didn't have time to set up the wireless network in my old apartment," he says. "I was working eighteen-hour days, so I just told my wife to go to Best Buy and pick up a router. She installed it, hit next, next, finish, and boom, that was it. We lived in a very upscale building, there was no riffraff. We just assumed we didn't have anything to worry about."

In the following months, Doe says he contacted Comcast on numerous occasions to complain that his Internet connection was frustratingly slow. In hindsight, he believes his neighbors were using his unprotected wireless to download movies. But after researching his options online and consulting an attorney, he realized his predicament was thornier than he'd initially perceived. A simple mea culpa would not suffice.

To fight the case in court would set him back thousands of dollars in attorney's fees. Plus he'd be entangled in litigation in Washington, D.C., while living 2,700 miles away in Washington state. Finally, if he were to lose the case, he could be ordered to pay up to $150,000 under federal copyright law.

But it just so happens that the offices of Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver — the D.C.-based attorneys who represent Imperial Enterprises — offer an easy alternative: Doe can pay a few thousand dollars in fees, and the porn case will disappear. In exchange for the settlement, they will drop their lawsuit, and John Doe 2,057 can rest assured that he will remain blissfully anonymous.

"The sad part about this entire porn thing is it will cost more to go to a judge," Doe says. "At the end of the day, I'll probably settle and pay the fee to make this go away."

He is hardly alone in his predicament: Number 2,057 is one of 3,545 John Does being sued in a mass lawsuit for allegedly infringing on the copyrights of Tokyo Cougar Creampies and/or Teen Paradise 4, another Imperial Enterprises production. This lawsuit isn't unique, either: Since January 2010, 194,345 John Does from across the country have been sued in 296 cases for alleged copyright violations, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit digital-rights advocacy organization. Virtually all the cases stem from the use of a popular file-sharing technology called BitTorrent, and all are the work of a handful of enterprising attorneys suing on behalf of independent film studios and distributors, purveyors of everything from Academy Award winners such as The Hurt Locker to low-budget schlock and hard-core porn.

The film industry loses $6.1 billion annually to digital piracy, according to a study conducted by economist Stephen Siwek and cited recently by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). And the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) says royalty rights for indie films have been halved from what they were five years ago. The John Doe lawsuits are a way for desperate movie studios and distributors to recoup those losses. Armed with a list of IP addresses and draconian copyright laws, lawyers for the scorned studios are treating a broad swath of the Internet-browsing public like their own personal ATM.

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