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EDITORIAL: Hollywood trial lawyers’ inside job

Obama judge greenlights legal shakedown

Hollywood's close ties to the Obama administration are taking root in the judicial branch. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell, who was named to her spot on the federal bench by President Obama in July, ordered several Internet service providers to hand over the identities of 5,583 unidentified customers being sued as "John Does" for illegally downloading B-movies.

This action would be relatively unremarkable if not for the fact that Judge Howell just happened to be a former registered lobbyist for the Recording Industry Association of America and Universal Music Group. It's hard to believe that she would not have preconceived views on the case given her former employers were just as sue-happy as Donkeyball Movie LLC, Maverick Entertainment Group Inc. and Call of the Wild Movie LLC - plaintiffs in the present action.

The firms assert that they have suffered significant harm from the unauthorized downloading of unforgettable cinematic classics such as "13 hours in a Warehouse," "He Who Finds a Wife" and "Hellbinders." The latter film's plot is summarized as: "Max is a fast-talking mercenary willing to risk everything for the almighty dollar, but he has met his match when he agrees to take on a job to terminate the devil himself." We don't want to ruin it for you, so in case you haven't seen it yet, we won't give away the ending.

Although the studios claim that they are merely protecting their intellectual property, they typically send all defendants, once identified, a threatening letter. It states penalties of up to $150,000 per movie downloaded are possible but that they are willing to drop the matter in exchange for between $1,500 and $3,900. There's a website, copyrightsettlement.info, that allows convenient payment with "All Major Credit Cards Accepted." Even for someone wrongly accused, it can make sense to pay up and avoid the legal expense, stress and public humiliation of being sued for allegedly downloading the film "Stripper Academy." It's quite possible that many of these flicks were secretly downloaded to avoid the embarrassment of having them show up in a Netflix queue.

This legal heist allows a minor studio to convert films that have little commercial value into blockbusters. All it takes is a team of lawyers and a compliant judge - and that's exactly what they've gotten with Judge Howell. Financial-disclosure documents show that she earned several hundred thousand dollars between 2004 and 2008 trying to convince Congress to enact the very laws that made this particular racket possible. Her actions have shown partiality.

Judge Howell steamrolled over the particularly apt objection of Time Warner Cable that Hollywood's most recent demands involved hunting down the identities of over 4,000 subscribers. Time Warner is not a defendant in the case and has done nothing wrong. Each time it has to identify a customer, it needs to go through and check records to determine who had a specific Internet address at a specific time. The company estimates each search costs $45 in staff time and takes away resources from more important law-enforcement requests for similar information. Judge Howell only has jurisdiction over downloading that took place within the District, but her broad order refused to separate out the vast majority of the accused who happen to live in other parts of the country.

So far, Hollywood has gone after 100,000 "John Does" in these downloading cases. That would mean $150 million, if everyone settled. The Constitution provides for a limited copyright protection for the specific purpose of promoting "the Progress of Science and useful Arts." This goal is not accomplished by enriching trial attorneys and endorsing scattershot, dragnet lawsuits that offer little way out for those wrongly accused.

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