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Another ISP bucks 'Hurt Locker' subpoenas

Producers of Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker" did not properly serve a subpoena on a South Dakota-based ISP, according to that company's lawyers.

Publicity shot from the movie, 'The Hurt Locker.'
Voltage Pictures

An Internet service provider based in South Dakota is refusing to turn over information belonging to 143 customers accused of illegally sharing the Oscar-winning film, "The Hurt Locker."

In federal court on Monday, Midcontinent Communications filed a motion to quash a subpoena received from Voltage Pictures, the film's producers, who allege some of the ISP's customers used peer-to-peer services to pilfer unauthorized copies of its movie. Voltage seeks to require Midcontinent to identify those customers as well as turn over their home addresses, phone numbers, and other data.

Midcontinent's lawyers told the court that the subpoena was improperly issued and doesn't offer to compensate the ISP for gathering the information. In addition, Midcontinent, which has 250,000 customers in North and South Dakota and parts of Minnesota, is skeptical that a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., where the subpoena was issued, has jurisdiction over it. Midcontinent told the court that its own policy prevents it from providing "customer information to third parties without a valid court order."

Voltage Pictures is one of more than a dozen independent studios that have hired law firm Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver to spearhead a legal campaign against thousands of people accused of violating their copyrights. Since Dunlap possesses only Internet protocol numbers when gathering information on accused movie pirates, it must first file lawsuits against "John Does." Then, the firm must try to compel ISPs to put names to the IP addresses.

Sharing large film files continues to get simpler, thanks in large part to improving file-compression technologies and faster Internet connections. While the major film studios have the Motion Picture Association of America to enforce their copyrights, indie filmmakers typically don't have the resources to go after illegal file sharers. In setting up antipiracy operations tailor-made for the indies, Dunlap is trying to build a niche.

But Dunlap, which has reportedly agreed to pay all the costs connected to the lawsuits in exchange for a big percentage of whatever money is collected through litigation, has already run into plenty of profit-eating obstacles. Time Warner Cable raised similar concerns as Midcontinent after receiving numerous subpoenas from Dunlap. A federal judge has raised concerns about the jurisdiction issues and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union argued in court over the legality of naming large numbers of individuals in a single suit.

Tom Simmons, a spokesman for Midcontinent, said Friday that his company is objecting to this partly because Voltage hasn't offered to compensate the company for expenses related to looking up IP addresses and because the request puts an undue burden on the company. But Midcontinent is most concerned with protecting customer privacy, Simmons said.

The subpoena requires "Midcontinent to reveal highly personal information of purported customers," the ISP wrote the court. In the motion to quash, Midcontinent closed by saying before it is required to turn over such sensitive data, "the court should require Voltage Pictures to properly serve Midcontinent with a valid subpoena from a court with subpoena power" over the ISP.

The big question is, will Dunlap face more of these kinds of fights?