VPR Internationale v Does 1-1017
In this technological era, online piracy is a very common problem for many businesses. One issue that clouds prosecution in this area is the anonymity granted by internet. Often the only form of identification attached to an illegal act is an IP address. An IP address is a unique number assigned to any device hooked up to the internet. Unfortunately for persecutors, a single IP address doesn't mean a single person. Usually, the device that is plugged directly into the internet some form of router which then broadcasts to a household, a coffee shop, or an entire wing of an airport. This means that an unsecured home network, for instance, could be used by a neighbor to illegally download pirated movies, and it would be the innocent, yet careless, party that would be accused.
There is no phone book of IP addresses. If a content provider decides that they want to pursue a lawsuit against an IP address, they have generally had to ask the Internet Service Providers (ISP) for the contact information associated with the IP (often not the information of the actual perpetrator), which the ISP may or may not decide to provide. In the past, though, content providers have been able to subpoena the information from the ISPs, leaving the accused to challenge the validity of the forceful collection of private data themselves.
In a ruling this past month, however, a judge has refused to uphold the request for such a subpoena, claiming that the privacy concerns of the owners of the affected IPs outweigh the vague benefits claimed by the litigant companies. In VPR Internationale v DOES 1-1017, a Canadian adult film company is suing more than a thousand unnamed defendants for copyright infringement for disseminating their products through the popular file sharing program BitTorrent. VPRI has only the IP addresses used in the offense, and sought to ascertain the identities of offenders by subpoenaing the relevant contact information. The judge, Judge Harold A. Baker, refused to grant the subpoena requests, citing lack of proven jurisdiction, since not a single actual person has been named in the suit. He also referenced this article article from MSNBC which details the struggles of a man accused of distributing child pornography after a neighbor used his unsecured internet connection to obtain such materials. Despite the fact that he was guilty only of ignorance, the man had all of his electronics seized and was treated like a vile criminal due to the nature of the case. His reputation in the community was permanently tarnished simply based on the fact that his contact information was subpoenaed on account of his IP address alone.
This case will not proceed any time soon, as the prosecution has no way to find out the identities of any of the defendants. Obviously people who break the law online should be brought to justice, but seems that, for now, these IP based "fishing expeditions" will not be used to do it.