Filmmakers Hunt for Pirate Commenters on Reddit, But Hit Wall Twice

Millions of daily Reddit users unknowingly became potential targets in a copyright lawsuit against an ISP. Film companies, represented by lawyer Kerry Culpepper, dug through old piracy-related comments on the platform, hoping to identify users and use their words as evidence. They emphasized not wanting to sue individuals, but rather leverage the comments for broader legal action.

The Legal Battle Unfolds: Initial Subpoenas

Kerry Culpepper, a copyright attorney spearheading piracy lawsuits against Internet providers on behalf of independent film companies, identified specific comments that could serve as crucial evidence. Despite stating a lack of interest in pursuing legal action against these individuals, the comments could potentially hold significance in the ongoing legal battles.

Reddit’s Defense: Upholding Anonymity

Attempting to unveil the identities of Redditors, the film companies initially subpoenaed Reddit last year, seeking personal details of several users. Reddit, however, staunchly defended its users’ right to anonymous speech, leading to a legal standoff where a California federal court sided with Reddit.

A Shift in Strategy: Targeting Specific Comments

In subsequent attempts, film companies targeted specific comments related to ISPs facing lawsuits. Despite more focused subpoenas and a shift in strategy to obtain only IP address logs, Reddit continued to resist, emphasizing the protection of users’ First Amendment rights. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler upheld Reddit’s position.

The Third Legal Bout: Anonymity vs. Evidence

In the third legal bout, film companies aimed to use comments from six Redditors as evidence against Frontier Communications. Unlike previous requests, they sought only IP address logs, claiming this would preserve anonymity. Reddit, consistent in its stance, refused to comply, asserting the sanctity of anonymous speech.

Judicial Review: The Decision of Judge Hixson

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Hixson, reviewing the case, denied the motion to compel, echoing the decisions in the earlier two Reddit-related cases. Emphasizing the primacy of individuals’ First Amendment rights, the court maintained that the interests of rightsholders must yield to the protection of anonymous speech, especially when Redditors are third parties and not defendants.

Novel Arguments: IP Addresses and First Amendment Scrutiny

Despite the film companies’ novel argument that sharing IP addresses doesn’t violate the First Amendment’s right to anonymous speech, the court referenced precedents indicating that IP address unmasking is subject to scrutiny. Judge Hixson highlighted that IP addresses are crucial for unmasking and rejected the notion that providing an IP address is not an unmasking subject to First Amendment scrutiny.

The Verdict: Upholding Precedence

Ultimately, Judge Hixson concluded that the film companies failed to meet the standard for obtaining the evidence from Reddit, as the information could be obtained from other sources, including the ISP involved. The court’s decision maintained the precedence set in the earlier cases, highlighting the importance of protecting users’ anonymity unless absolutely necessary for the pursuit of justice.

A copy of U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Hixson’s order is available here (pdf)