A hot potato: Lawyers suing in a film piracy case are demanding the identities of nine Reddit users who “may” have discussed piracy on the platform. Reddit handed over some information to one (or two) of the users who seemed to be engaged in a “how to” discussion on bootlegging movies; plaintiffs want all users to be exposed. Reddit said, “No. See you in court.”
On Tuesday, Reddit filed legal papers in the Northern District Court of California refusing to unmask users in response to a motion to compel filed last week. The legal battle stems from a lawsuit between the movie studios and Astound Broadband (formerly RCN) over piracy.
Background: In 2021, Bodyguard Productions, Millennium Media, and several other film studios filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Jersey against RCN. The lawsuit claims that RCN knowingly allowed its customers to illegally download 34 copyrighted movies, including Hellboy, Rambo V: Last Blood, and others.
The studios subpoenaed Reddit to turn over the “IP address registration and logs from 1/1/2016 to present, name, email address, and other account registration information” of nine Redditors . Its general basis for seeking information is that it believes that these users are involved in pirating movies through RCN because they are talking about the topic.
After looking into the accounts, Reddit released some information on at least one user but said others were unrelated to the case. Its legal counsel claimed that the subpoena amounted to a “fishing expedition” and that Reddit could not violate the First Amendment rights of users without strong evidence of their relevance to the case.
So last week, the plaintiffs filed a motion to compel in a federal court in California. On Tuesday, Reddit’s legal team responded with an opposition filing. In this, Reddit pointed out that the posts of the users in question were “completely unrelated” to the lawsuit under litigation.
“Four of the seven users at issue do not appear to have even mentioned RCN, based on the evidence offered by the Plaintiffs. They only referred to ‘my provider’ or ‘our ISP.’ And those references were all made in a discussion about Comcast, not RCN. Two of the three remaining users mentioned RCN but discussed issues (such as their customer service experience) that were unrelated. of copyright infringement or the Plaintiffs’ allegations. And the end user is unclear RCN was mentioned arguable in the context of copyright infringement once nine years ago, more than any arguable relevant timeframe for Plaintiffs’ allegations.”
Reddit’s legal team also stated that the plaintiffs’ claim that these users were “highly likely” to refer to RCN is speculation, and the court should reject the argument.
“An RCN competitor, Comcast, has over thirty times RCN’s market share,” Reddit’s rebuttal read. “This context is important to understand how absurd it is for Plaintiffs to suggest that any mention of an unnamed ISP in a discussion about Comcast is ‘very likely’ a reference to RCN. a Reddit discussion about Ford, they are ‘probably’ talking about an Alfa Romeo.
Reddit also maintains that the information fished out by the plaintiffs could be more easily and accurately coerced from the defendant, RCN, during discovery. The platform’s lawyers said the court should not force their client to disclose its customers based on the plaintiffs’ “wild guesses about who Reddit users are. CAN become RCN customers or CAN engaged in copyright infringement at some point in the last decade.”
Throughout the rebuttal on Reddit, the legal team cited multiple instances of the case leading up to a legal bar that the studios failed to meet in their argument. Courts have already confirmed that the First Amendment covers online anonymity. They also established that litigants cannot unmask users who are not involved in the lawsuit unless a “compelling need” outweighs the user’s First Amendment rights, citing Rich v. Butowsky and Doe v. 2TheMart.com.
Attorneys for both sides are scheduled to argue the motion in California’s Northern District Court in San Francisco on March 23.
Image credit: Nick Youngson