Smack Down in Court as Judge 'Eviscerates' Copyright Lawyer

CHICAGO—Ars Technica has a rather humorous if sad story about the brutal smack down last Wednesday by federal judge Milton Shadur of one John Steele, who last year began an aggressive and relentless campaign of mass copyright litigation.

AVN has reported often and at length about the numerous lawsuits brought by Steele and others against anonymous alleged pirates of adult films that have at times attempted to corral more than 2,000 defendants into a single lawsuit.

Beginning a few years ago but ramping up seriously in 2010, the strategy had taken hold of the imagination of a few aggressive attorneys whose legal experience lay elsewhere, but who were nonetheless able to convince more than a few adult studios that targeting torrent users by their IP addresses, bundling them into large groups according to the movies they downloaded rather than the jurisdiction in which they lived, and then asking a court to allow them to issue mass subpoenas to ISPs for identifying information about the users, in order to then negotiate payment settlements or sue, was the way to go.

The results have been decidedly hit and miss. Several judges around the country have reacted to the tactic unfavorably, and in several cases these attorneys have seen all defendants severed. Some, like Steele, have seen their cases dismissed.

Last week, in an experience that Steele may never forget, Shadur summoned him to his courtroom for a 9 a.m. hearing, during which time he did to Steele what Buster Douglas did to Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990. According to Ars Technica, the morning consultation with Shadur was scheduled not least to discuss the “ill-considered lawsuit” that has “abused the litigation system in more than one way.”

“[Shadur], who keeps a ‘Now, 3 for 10¢… Federal Judge!’ sign beside him in his 23rd floor Chicago courtroom, summoned file-sharing lawyer John Steele to court this morning with those words,” wrote Nate Anderson. “At issue was Steele's representation of CP Productions, an Arizona porn producer suing 300 anonymous individuals for illegally sharing a film called (ahem) Cowgirl Creampie.

“Shadur had already had enough of this particular litigation and had tossed the case not once but twice within the last few weeks,” Anderson continued. “The first dismissal came because Steele had not actually served all defendants in the case within 120 days of filing it (Steele pleaded that he was still waiting on ISPs to turn over the names associated with the IP addresses he had provided).”

The second dismissal came in mid-February after an anonymous defendant filed a “motion to quash” the subpoenas that Steele claimed were not being addressed quickly enough by internet service providers.

“The judge immediately used that amateur motion as the ground for a total dismissal of the case, saying that it reminded him of why ‘the court was correct the first time around,’” wrote Anderson.

The hearing that took place last week was scheduled at the time of the second dismissal. The judge was reportedly determined to make the case go away and wanted to know how Steele's client, CP Productions intended to notify all of the anonymous defendants that it had been dismissed and there was no need to continue sending the judge “motions to quash.”

Not surprisingly, Steele attempted once again revive the case, and asked the judge last Tuesday, a day before the fateful 9 a.m. conference, to reconsider the previous dismissals and allow him to add a charge of conspiracy to the counts, reported Anderson.

“Steele even said one anonymous defendant had committed ‘fraud’ on the court by listing ‘Possible John Doe’ as his name,” wrote Anderson. “To Steele it was ‘somewhat unsurprising that an individual involved in theft would be less than truthful to this Court, particularly when he is allowed to operate under the cloak of anonymity.’”

One can only surmise that it was that last attempt to persuade a judge whose patience had already been sorely tried, so to speak, that turned what might have been a civil proceeding into a trip to the woodshed.

“I accepted you at your word,” said Shadur. The judge then reminded Steele that the attorney had claimed a valid Illinois connection to the defendants, but that, after allowing discovery and the issuance of subpoenas, the judge started “getting motions to quash” from “people that had nothing at all to do with the state of Illinois.”

Even with that, Steele attempted to save his case, according to Anderson, by “pointing out that he had in fact secured some settlements from defendants located in Chicago, which showed that at least some of the alleged infringement took place here and should be actionable.”

Shadur would have none of it. The case could continue in Arizona if Steele's client so chose, but using Illinois as his own personal petri dish for experimental litigation was over. “I don't see any justification at all for this action,” he said, and then took a few more minutes to recount the many ways that Steele had failed his client.

“After 10 minutes of this,” wrote Anderson, “in which Steele managed to speak for about 30 seconds, the judge ended the case for good. ‘That's it,’ he concluded.”

Ever determined, Steele told Ars Technica after the final dismissal of the case, "Our client, CP Productions, is happy that Judge Shadur dismissed the case without prejudice and has allowed us to file against the few remaining John Does individually," Steele said. "We will certainly continue to fight on behalf of CP Productions in its war on piracy."

A Chicago-based attorney, Steele also is not giving up on Illinois. “The judges in our other cases have, for the most part, sided with our clients and dismissed anonymous motions filed by non-parties," he said. "We expect to continue to have a majority of the courts find in our favor and allow us to find out who is stealing our client's content."

Spoken like a true pirate slayer.

Photo: James "Buster" Douglas serving up an eviscerating left hook to Mike Tyson in 1990 to capture the heavyweight championship.