The decision, filed Monday, May 6, by California Federal Judge Otis D. Wright, II, begins:
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” — Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).
Plaintiffs have outmaneuvered the legal system. 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. So now, copyright laws originally designed to compensate starving artists, allow starving attorneys in this electronic-media era to plunder the citizenry.
Plaintiffs do have a right to assert their intellectual-property rights, so long as they do it right. But Plaintiffs’ filing of cases using the same boilerplate complaint against dozens of defendants raised the Court’s alert. It was when the Court realized Plaintiffs engaged their cloak of shell companies and fraud that the Court went to battlestations.
Who says legal writing is dull?
The judge engaged his battlestations explosively, imposing financial sanctions as well as referring the plaintiffs for investigation and action by state and federal bars, the U.S. Attorney in California, and the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS. Judge Wright also took steps to distribute his judgment to all other courts in which the plaintiffs have pending cases.
In popular parlance, the plaintiffs phasered by Judge Wright go by “Prenda Law”, to which Google responds with 155,000 hits. Busy guys. Excellent summaries of the case — which has been going on, in one form or another, for years — are available from Mike Masnick at Techdirt and Ken White at Popehat.
I covered a similar New York case about a year ago under the headline “Judge tells copyright trolls they came to the wrong court for help with their shakedown racket”. In the current case, Judge Wright characterized the trolls in his court as a Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO). In last year’s New York case, the judge concluded “The plaintiffs … simply have used the Court and its subpoena powers to obtain sufficient information to shake down the John Does.” Whether shakedown on the East Coast or RICO on the West, the game is the same. Trolls are like tribbles: When you see one, you’ve seen ‘em all.
Judge Wright’s Star Trek references are energizing the Net, but he does not go where no man has gone before. Late last year, during oral arguments in the recently decided ReDigi case, Judge Richard J. Sullivan reached for a Star Trek metaphor:
I guess [ReDigi is] saying it’s not a copy, right? They’re saying that [the actual file] it’s transported from one place to another, … I’m not a Trekkie, but I kept thinking it’s the difference from Captain Kirk going from the Enterprise to the planet through that transporter thing, where he’s not duplicated, to the cloning where there’s a good and a bad Captain Kirk where they’re both running around. I think one is a copy and the other is — the other was transported and it’s only one Captain Kirk.
By his use of “that transporter thing”, judge Sullivan renders unnecessary his “not a Trekkie” disclaimer. Judge Wright, on the other hand, does seem to be a member of the tribe. He refers, for example, to a relatively unimportant member of the plaintiffs’ legal team as “just a redshirt”, which many feel may break new judicio-linguistic ground. Wright’s order is also peppered with a number of “enterprise” instances, as well as some subtly placed shields and assimilations.
We’ll give Judge Wright the last word. In making his RICO comment, he writes, “Though Plaintiffs boldly probe the outskirts of law, the only enterprise they resemble is RICO. The federal agency eleven decks up [that is, the U.S. Attorney's Office] is familiar with their prime directive and will gladly refit them for their next voyage.”
Live long and prosper, Judge Wright.