Porn Copyright Trolls May Be Headed to Jail

Remember those fine upstanding attorneys who were making a tidy living shaking down people who torrented porn, based on nothing but IP addresses and people's fear of being exposed?

Well, a federal judge in Los Angeles has finally had enough.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright not only slapped the lawyers behind this scheme—John Steele, Paul Hansmeier, Paul Duffy and Brett Gibbs—with more than $80,000 in sanctions, he also referred the four of them to the local U.S. Attorney's Office for possible fraud prosecution and to their respective state bar associations for ethics investigation.

Wright's order describes how this crew operated:

They've discovered the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs. And they exploit this anomaly by accusing individuals of illegally downloading a single pornographic video. Then they offer to settle — for a sum calculated to be just below the cost of a bare-bones defense. For these individuals, resistance is futile; most reluctantly pay rather than have their names associated with illegally downloading porn.

It turns out these lawyers were not just relying on the shady tactic of suing based on nothing but IP addresses—a practice the judge specifically slammed—it appears they may not even have had any relationship with the actual copyright owners. According to Wright's order, they forged signatures on copyright transfers using the stolen identity of one lawyer's gardener, then appeared in court asserting to be owners of the videos at issue:

Seeking easy money, they conspired to operate this enterprise and formed the AF Holdings and Ingenuity 13 entities (among other fungible entities) for the sole purpose of litigating copyright-infringement lawsuits. They created these entities to shield the Principals from potential liability and to give an appearance of legitimacy.

But the jig at last appears to be up now that these tactics have been exposed in a published order. In all likelihood, these four are in the process of covering their tracks and scurrying for the shadows, but at the very least, this shameful enterprise has been shut down.

The National Law Journal has a full report on the story.