In keeping with a growing trend, this week Federal Judge Bernard Zimmerman of the Northern District of California severed 5,010 Doe Defendants from a single case—effectively dismissing all but one defendant. EFF participated in the case as amicus.

This case, like many we’ve seen around the country, involved a pornographic work. Plaintiff sued more than 5,000 individuals anonymously based only on their ISP addresses, for allegedly exchanging an infringing file over a BitTorrent network. The copyright owner claimed that participation in BitTorrent “swarm” was a form of conspiracy, meaning it could sue everyone at once in California.

The court disagreed, vehemently, but that may not be the most notable aspect of the ruling. At least as remarkable is the court’s concern that mass copyright litigation is not really “litigation” but rather gaming of the judicial system to extract settlements. Discussing various public reports about copyright troll practices, for example, the court noted:

Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to enact copyright laws "to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts." If all the concerns about these mass Doe lawsuits are true, it appears that the copyright laws are being used as part of a massive collection scheme and not to promote useful arts.

The court’s analysis stressed the unfair pressure mass copyright litigation puts on defendants scattered all over the country:

Plaintiff, well aware of the difficulties out-of-state and out-of-district defendants would face if required to appear in San Francisco, has nonetheless sent them settlement demands which apparently inform them that they have been sued in this District. The defendants are left with a decision to defend themselves in San Francisco or hire an attorney to do so. This does not comport with the “principles of fundamental fairness,” . . ..

The ruling also noted the “logistical nightmare” these lawsuits create for courts, concluding:

[P]laintiff’s desire to enforce its copyright in what it asserts is a cost-effective manner does not justify perverting the joinder rules to create the management and logistical problems discussed above and then offer to settle with Doe defendants so that they can avoid digging themselves out of the morass plaintiff is creating.

Well said.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff in this case has had access to the defendants’ information for months, and has allegedly already settled with about 70 individuals. But even here there is some good news: the judge ordered the plaintiff to inform all defendants (except for the one that remains in the case) that they have been severed from the case by September 20, 2011. This should allow these 5,000 individuals to breathe (at least temporarily) a sigh of relief.

We hope more courts will follow Judge Zimmerman’s lead and help put a stop to these abusive lawsuits.