Needless to say, copycat attorneys have clamored to get in on the lucrative action. Chief among them is John Steele, a Chicago divorce lawyer who was the first to file John Doe suits on behalf of porn studios. By his own estimate, in the past year Steele has sued roughly 15,000 John Does in 110 separate cases, and he plans to file another 50 cases in the next month. Steele has no qualms about the fact that most people he goes after are unlikely to defend themselves, even if they are not guilty, because of the embarrassing nature of the films involved. "I don't feel embarrassed about watching porn," he says. "I don't think you should have to hide it. I think you should be embarrassed about a federal lawsuit being filed against you for stealing. Whether it's adult content or not, the issue is theft."

In December 2010, four months after he began targeting John Does, the website Ars Technica called out Steele for plagiarizing passages from the legal filings of Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver, and earlier this year the firm threatened to sue Steele for $25,000 for creating the Media Copyright Group, a name the D.C. attorneys claimed was "confusingly similar" to their US Copyright Group. Dunlap did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this story; Steele says the quarrel was resolved amicably. "We had a nice conversation and realized this is silly," he says. "We're actually good friends now. That firm did some good pioneering stuff, and then we kind of took it to another level."

Steele certainly isn't the only imitator out there. West Virginia lawyer Kenneth Ford created the Adult Copyright Company (motto: "Hardcore Protection"), and last July a north Texas attorney named Evan Stone established the Copyright Defense Agency. If Stone's name sounds familiar, that's because he shares it with a popular male porn star: Indeed, the guy representing the creators of Debbie Does Dallas in copyright cases has the same name as one of the leading men in Debbie Does Dallas...Again.

Chris Whetzel
Chris Whetzel

Reached by phone recently, Stone says he is no longer filing John Doe suits on behalf of adult studios, but for ordinary independent filmmakers only. He explains that he is an aspiring director himself and fighting to keep the movie business profitable. To that end, he believes his work has already made a difference. "Anecdotally, I've had friends tell me their friends aren't using BitTorrent anymore," Stone says. "They're looking for new ways to pirate shit because so many people are getting caught by guys like me."

Then again, Stone acknowledges that his operation suffered a serious setback when judges in Texas began to toss out his cases, ordering him to go after pirates individually rather than en masse. With a mandatory $350 filing fee per case, the prospect of suing 1,337 John Does, as Stone once did, is significantly less palatable when it costs $467,950 up-front. "Obviously they got fed up with the adult cases, and so they shit-canned all of those," Stone grumbles. "That's just how it is. The same thing happened in West Virginia."

Steele too has had a handful of John Doe cases derailed in northern Illinois by Judge Milton Shadur, who in one court filing criticized the attorney's legal strategy as "shoot first and identify his targets later." Steele says he has since shifted course and is now suing Does in significantly smaller groups, and only in jurisdictions where alleged downloads have occurred.

But where Stone and Steele's cases have fizzled, attorneys using nearly identical tactics in other jurisdictions are still being granted carte blanche to sue Does by the bushel.

Most cyber-pirates are prosecuted in the nation's capital. More than 85,000 John Does are currently caught in ongoing litigation in the district's federal court, according to the EFF. Not only is D.C. the home court of Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver, it is also the jurisdiction of Judge Beryl Howell, who worked as a lobbyist for the RIAA from 2004 to 2009, during the peak of the organization's anti-piracy campaign.

In February, Howell issued a ruling that is now frequently cited by pirate chasers as proof that their tactics are valid. Howell shot down a request by the EFF, the ACLU and Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization, that she not issue subpoenas for the IP addresses of 1,062 John Does accused of downloading the children's movie Call of the Wild. Among other points, the judge asserted that the Does "cannot demonstrate any harm that is occurring to them" before their names are disclosed to the attorneys who are suing them.

David Abrams, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, points out that while Howell's ruling is legally sound, she ignores the reality of the situation on this particular point. "None of these lawyers expect to get to court," Abrams explains. "They want a subpoena so they can send out that settlement letter. I suspect it works well on people who download the movies and just as well with people who didn't, because of the threat of being exposed for downloading something like transsexual porn."

Naturally, Howell's background has prompted skepticism about her impartiality when it comes to ruling on John Doe cases. She was paid $415,000 to lobby on the RIAA's behalf as the executive managing director and general counsel at Stroz Friedberg LLC, a consulting firm, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and the implu Corporation, a company that tracks spending by lobbying firms.

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