Friday, April 1, 2011

How Mass BitTorrent Lawsuits Turn Low-Budget Movies Into Big Bucks

On March 7, Camelot Distribution Group, an obscure film company in Los Angeles, unveiled its latest and potentially most profitable release: a federal lawsuit against BitTorrent users who allegedly downloaded the company’s 2010 B-movie revenge flick Nude Nuns With Big Guns between January and March of this year. The single lawsuit targets 5,865 downloaders, making it theoretically worth as much as $879,750,000 — more money than the U.S. box-office gross for Avatar.

At the moment, the targets of the litigation are unknown, even to Camelot. The mass lawsuit lists the  internet IP addresses of the downloaders (.pdf), and asks a federal judge to order ISPs around the country to dig into their records for each customer’s name.

It’s the first step in a process that could lead to each defendant getting a personalized letter in the mail from Camelot’s attorneys suggesting they settle the case, lest they wind up named in a public lawsuit as having downloaded Nude Nuns With Big Guns.

A hearing on that request is set for April 13. In all probability none of the alleged downloaders know it’s happening.

Welcome to the future of Hollywood, or at least the less glittery outskirts of Tinsel Town that produce art films, exploitation flicks and porn. Over the past year, small-budget film producers have nearly perfected a slick, courtroom-based business strategy that’s targeted more than 130,000 suspected movie downloaders.

The types of films include the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker, the less-critically acclaimed Nude Nuns, and dozens of adult movies.

In contrast to the the RIAA’s much-criticized and now-abandoned war against music pirates — which targeted 20,000 downloaders in six years — the movie lawsuits appear to have been designed from the start as for-profit endeavor, not a as a deterrent to piracy.

They differ from the music litigation campaign in another significant way, as well. Civil defendants are normally sued in the courthouse nearest to where they committed the alleged wrongdoing — in this instance on computers in their homes or work. It’s a bread-and-butter legal precept meant to prevent people who live in California from having to answer to lawsuits in Texas, for example.

Following that standard — more or less — the RIAA generally targeted dozens or so defendants in each suit, not thousands, and filed each case in the jurisdiction of the users’ ISP. The RIAA lost millions of dollars with this strategy, which required them to pay individual $350 filing fees for each case, and sometimes engage local counsel.

The movie studios, in contrast, often are suing thousands of people at once, in a total of just about three dozen lawsuits (.xls) often filed in the plaintiff’s lawyer’s backyard and far from the defendants’ homes.

This strategy was pioneered last year by the U.S. Copyright Group, a coalition of indy film producers formed explicitly to make money by suing downloaders. It’s now being mimicked by individual production companies.

The Nuns lawsuit, “Camelot Distribution Group Inc, v. Does 1 through 5865″, is the most recent. A February 2 lawsuit filed in Illinois, “Openmind Solutions, Inc. v. Does 1-2925,” (.pdf) is targeting alleged downloaders over adult titles like Throated, 1000 Facials Britney Beth and Stuffed Petite.

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