Not coincidentally, both pictures underperformed at the box office. Traditionally, they likely would have been reliable earners at the video store, with The Hurt Locker cashing in on the cachet of winning multiple Oscars (the film did net more than $32 million in DVD sales) and The Expendables relying on a star-studded cast to woo renters. But these days, both films can easily be obtained for the low, low price of free with just a few simple mouse clicks.

"There's been a sea change of how content and information is exchanged," says Lory Lybeck, a copyright attorney from Seattle who's led several high-profile legal clashes against the RIAA and now defends John Does. "Copyright owners and distributors of that content can either adapt to the new technology or they can adapt in a mutant way. They can sue and exact hundreds of thousands of dollars for something they could only charge $20 for previously. All they need to do is find out who is sharing that content, and all of a sudden it becomes a gold mine."

Porn studios are the ones who have sued the majority of John Does. They too have been hit hard by piracy: One industry expert estimates that adult-entertainment revenues shrank 40 percent between 2004 and 2009.

Chris Whetzel
Chris Whetzel

"It's a helpless feeling to know that when you put a title out, it's free everywhere within an hour," says Jason Tucker, head of anti-piracy efforts for Private Media Group, one of the largest international porn distributors. "It happens so fast — in the blink of an eye. And it's not just here; it's everywhere for anyone with a computer, all over the world, instantly. People either don't realize or don't care that there's work and money that went into making that product."

Rodney Githens got his John Doe letter in the mail in January, a month before he was scheduled to ship out to Afghanistan. The 45-year-old North Carolinian retired from the army as a captain shortly after completing a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004 but was headed to Kabul to work as a civilian contractor. Ironically, Githens was accused of downloading The Hurt Locker, which tells the tale of an army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Baghdad.

"I just didn't have a lot of interest in watching that," Githens says, his Southern drawl audible all the way from Afghanistan during a Skype chat. "I was kind of there. I didn't need to see it. I don't have any of the Torrent software installed on my computer. My son, who is nineteen, said the same thing. He allowed me to go through his computer, and I didn't see anything. I'm fairly confident it didn't happen at my house."

Githens hired an attorney and was prepared to fight, but the case against him and all but a handful of his 24,583 fellow John Does was eventually dropped. According to the EFF, the judge in the case was perturbed by the slow progress of the proceedings and "set up a schedule for the timely dismissal" of the Does who had already been identified via subpoena. The soldier, though, says he never had any intention of forking over a settlement. "I feel like if you pay, it marks you as a victim, and they'll come right back a second and a third time," he says, echoing a claim made by several John Doe defense attorneys. "It's a never-ending well for them. It's a fishing expedition."

Coincidentally, the men casting the nets are veterans like Githens. Thomas Dunlap and Daniel Grubb are the founding partners of Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver. Both men are active National Guardsmen, and Dunlap, a former New York stockbroker, spent 33 months in Afghanistan as an embedded trainer with Afghan security forces.

In January 2010, Dunlap and Grubb trademarked the name US Copyright Group. Later that same month, they filed the first large-scale copyright lawsuit against John Does in U.S. history, subpoenaing information about 749 IP addresses that had allegedly downloaded The Gray Man, a low-budget horror flick about a grandpa who cannibalizes children. Once they had the names and addresses of the presumed pirates, the lawyers mailed them a notice bearing the newly minted, official-looking seal of their US Copyright Group. The message made it clear that the John Does could do things the easy way or the hard way: fork over a settlement or risk getting slapped with a $150,000 judgment in federal court, plus the cost of attorneys' fees.

The tactic was not original. Starting in late 2007, a British law firm began suing thousands of alleged pirates in Europe and squeezing them for settlements. The scheme fell apart when two of the lawyers were convicted of six counts of professional misconduct, including charges that they were "acting in a way likely to diminish trust in the profession" and knowingly targeting innocent victims.

Nevertheless, the US Copyright Group broke new ground in American courts. Over the next five months they proceeded to sue nearly 15,000 John Does in Washington, D.C. — about 9,000 more people than had ever been sued for copyright infringement in all federal courts combined in a single year.

It remains unclear exactly how much cash the pirate hunters have reaped from their John Doe scheme. The settlements are private agreements, and the attorneys are not obligated to divulge their earnings. That being said, it's conceivable that a movie studio and their attorneys could turn a handsome profit on a film without ever selling a single ticket or DVD. In the case of The Expendables, for instance, if even half of the 23,322 John Does involved each doled out a $3,000 settlement, the total haul would have been nearly $35 million.

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