Thousands of ISP subscribers targeted in mass copyright infringement suits will have a better shot at defending themselves as a result of a hearing held today in Washington, D.C. EFF appeared at a hearing as a friend of the court, arguing that the suits improperly lump thousands of defendants together, a shortcut that deprives the defendants of fair access to individual justice.

The brainchild of a Washington, D.C., law firm calling itself the "U.S. Copyright Group" (USCG), these "John Doe" lawsuits were filed on behalf of seven filmmakers and implicate well over 14,000 anonymous individuals in alleged unauthorized downloading of independent films, including "Far Cry" and "The Hurt Locker." Time Warner Cable moved to quash subpoenas issued in two of the suits that sought the identities of the Doe defendants, and EFF, the ACLU and Public Citizen filed an amicus brief in support of the motion. EFF was invited to appear at the hearing, and told the judge that USCG did not offer enough evidence of a relationship between the defendants to justify suing them together, and that the evidence that the plaintiffs themselves submitted suggested the court did not have jurisdiction for people who are located across the country. Indeed, TWC noted that its records showed it had no subscribers in the District of Columbia.

During the hearing, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer said that while the plaintiffs had a right to pursue legitimate claims, she was also concerned that the defendants’ interests be protected as well, and that the defendants might not have a fair opportunity to raise legal objections. As a result, Judge Collyer ordered the plaintiffs, TWC and amici to work together to draft a notice that could be sent to subscribers whose information is sought. The notice is intended to help educate the defendants about the case and their legal options, such as the option to challenge jurisdiction.

EFF and its co-amici had urged the court to go a good deal further, because we believe the posture of these cases violated fundamental principles of fairness. However, we applaud the court’s effort to protect the defendants’ interests and, based on today’s hearing, we are hopeful that Judge Collyer will continue to seek to make these cases as fairer for the thousands of Doe defendants caught in the USCG dragnet.

The stakes are high for anyone identified in these cases. USCG's strategy appears to be to threaten a judgment of up to $150,000 per downloaded movie -- the maximum penalty allowable by law in copyright suits and a very unlikely judgment in cases arising from a single, noncommercial infringement -- in order to pressure the alleged infringers to settle quickly for $1,500 - $2,500 per person.