True story. Nobody knows for certain how it happened, so it’s easy to believe that it could not happen to you or to me. Or could it? During the summer, a friend who doesn’t want you to know her name — we’ll call her Veronica — received a letter from Comcast saying she was being sued for copyright infringement for illegally downloading a pornographic movie. According to the letter, the number of defendants in the suit over this movie alone totaled 5,829. Veronica says she doesn’t know how to download movies on her computer. And in fact, nothing on her computer shows that she has downloaded this or any other film. She figured Comcast had made a mistake and put the letter in her to-be-shredded pile.
Shortly after this, a second letter arrived, this time from a Washington D.C. law firm. The firm, representing a movie production company, advised her to remit $3,500 by the end of August to settle the company’s case against her and avoid being named in their lawsuit. If she missed the deadline the cost for settling would increase to $4,500. This letter got Veronica’s attention. She retrieved the earlier missive from Comcast and panicked. She didn’t have a lawyer, was sure she couldn’t afford one, and didn’t know where to begin to straighten out this mess. Luckily, she had a public defender as a neighbor and went to her for advice.
The charges against Veronica came out of nowhere. How did my name get on this list, she wondered. The neighbor asked if she had wifi in her house. She did, but never used it. She also had never created a password for it. Did someone access her wifi so he could download the movie and she could take the blame? It is likely that she will never know. At least she knows she is not alone. After receiving the law firm’s letter, she read an article in the August 10, 2011 Seattle Weekly by Keegan Hamilton called “Porn, Piracy & BitTorrent,” which tells a story similar to Veronica’s. A man, John Doe 2,057, who is legally blind, received a similar letter from another Washington, D.C. law firm accusing him of downloading two different porn flicks. He believes that neighbors in his apartment building were accessing his wireless network to download movies, because when setting up the router his wife had not established a password. Fearful that the threatened lawsuit would damage his career and that he couldn’t afford to finance a court battle, John Doe 2,057 succumbed to what looked a lot like a shakedown and paid up. In journalist Hamilton’s view, movie companies are going after anyone and everyone who could conceivably have downloaded their products: “The John Doe lawsuits are a way for desperate movie studios and distributors to recoup those losses. Armed with a list of IP addresses and draconian copyright laws, lawyers for the scorned studios are treating a broad swath of the Internet-browsing public like their own personal ATM.”
Veronica recently received a second letter from the law firm telling her that they had extended her deadline to pay up or be sued until mid-September. Her attorney neighbor asked a contact in a local law firm to respond pro bono. Veronica also saw a recent headline about a judge throwing out a “granny porn downloading charge.” This, along with the support she’s getting, has reduced her anxiety level a little. She knows she won’t stop worrying until she is out from under this millstone. Meanwhile, her wifi is now password protected and all she can do is wait. If yours isn’t, you might want to do something about it.