D.C. Judge Rules in Favor of Massive ‘John Doe’ Lawsuits

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last Tuesday, in a decision that runs in direct contradiction to the experience of several similar copyright infringement lawsuits, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell ruled against a Motion to Quash by Time Warner Cable in three mainstream cases: Call of the Wild Movie, LLC v Does 1-1,062, Maverick Entertainment Group, Inc. v Does 1-4,350 and Donkeyball Movie, LLC v Does 1-117.  Unlike other judges who have denied joinder or dismissed cases altogether, Howell allowed all three cases to proceed apace, and dismissed procedural and jurisdictional concerns that had plagued other similar attempts to bring numerous plaintiffs together in one action rather than serving them individually.

Regarding improper joinder, Howell determined that the plaintiffs had met the requirements, at least as far as discovery is concerned.

“After the putative defendants have been identified and named in the Complaints, the defendants may raise the argument that they are improperly joined under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20 and move to sever the joined defendants under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 21,” wrote Howell. “Severance at this stage, however, as numerous other courts both in and outside this District have held, is premature.”

More specifically, Howell determined, “If the Court were to consider severance at this juncture, plaintiffs would face significant obstacles in their efforts to protect their copyrights from illegal file-sharers and this would only needlessly delay their cases. The plaintiffs would be forced to file 5,583 separate lawsuits, in which they would then move to issue separate subpoenas to ISPs for each defendant’s identifying information. Plaintiffs would additionally be forced to pay the Court separate filing fees in each of these cases, which would further limit their ability to protect their legal rights. This would certainly not be in the “interests of convenience and judicial economy,” or “secure a just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of the action.”

Regarding jurisdiction, Howell disagreed with the Amici that “the plaintiffs ‘failed to allege specific facts’ to support jurisdiction and that the likelihood of the defendants uploading or downloading the plaintiffs’ copyrighted movies in the District of Columbia is ‘exceedingly small.’”

Rather, she concluded, “Given that the defendants have yet to be identified, the Court believes that evaluating the defendants’ jurisdictional defenses at this procedural juncture is premature.”

Time Warner also contended that the “defendants’ are entitled to First Amendment protection for their ‘anonymous communication.’” Howell disagreed, saying that while “File-sharers … do engage in expressive activity when they interact with other users on BitTorrent … [the] First Amendment interest implicated by their activity … is minimal given that file-sharers’ ultimate aim ‘is not to communicate a thought or convey an idea’ but to obtain movies and music for free.”

Further, she added, whatever First Amendment rights the putative file sharers have does not prevent disclosure of identifying information.

“The putative defendants’ asserted First Amendment right to anonymity in this context does not shield them from allegations of copyright infringement,” she wrote. “The plaintiffs therefore may obtain from ISPs information identifying the putative defendants.”

The burden on Time Warner, she concluded, was not so great that it would support the motion to quash.

“Time Warner has failed to demonstrate that compliance with the plaintiffs’ subpoena requests would impose an undue burden,” Howell wrote. “Although Time Warner asserts that producing the requested information is a ‘multi-step process,’ it admits that “more than fifty percent” of the work has already been done, with the identifying information subject to the subpoena isolated and preserved. The Court sees no reason why Time Warner cannot expeditiously complete the processing of this information for production to the plaintiffs.”

This is clearly a significant ruling in “mass litigation” lawsuits that have been under asaault over the past year or so. Time will tell if this ruling impacts other cases, and especially those being brought on behalf of adult entertainment studios.

The Howell ruling can be accessed here.