For 'Hurt Locker' sharers, good and bad news

A federal judge OKs mass lawsuits against suspected illegal file sharers to proceed, but she has serious questions about fairness.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

Anyone who fears being sued on suspicion of pirating the Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker" can likely relax, at least for a little while.

The law firm representing indie move producers, including the makers of 'The Hurt Locker,' won a big victory in court last week. Voltage Pictures

The law firm representing Voltage Pictures, the producers of the Iraq war film, is suing people suspected of being illegal file sharers but is being delayed by watchdog groups.

Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, which is filing copyright complaints on behalf of at least a dozen independent filmmakers, including Voltage, was in a Washington, D.C., court last week, where a federal judge instructed the law firm to help create a new way of notifying people that they are being sued for copyright violations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a pro-technology advocacy group, and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged Dunlap Grubb's attempt to file a single lawsuit against thousands of people. In the case of "The Hurt Locker," Voltage has obtained at least 5,000 Internet Protocol addresses belonging to people it says shared the film illegally. Representatives of the EFF and the ACLU argue there is nothing that binds these people together and that making them all defendants in a single suit isn't proper.

The strategy of filing lawsuits against those who download media files via peer-to-peer services was pursued by the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the top music companies, for five years before it gave it up in December 2008. Since then, the major Hollywood studios and music labels have concentrated on convincing Internet service providers, such as Time Warner Cable and AT&T, to penalize those it sees as chronic copyright abusers. But small indie movie producers may not have the resources to lobby ISPs. "The Hurt Locker" was leaked to the Web months before its theatrical release, and it was the lowest-grossing Oscar winner for Best Picture ever.

Dunlap Grubb said it offers these producers a means to protect their property and recoup losses. It's still too early to determine how profitable this will be for film producers or how effective at stopping piracy.

'Hurt Locker' sharers: Expect docs like this (photos)

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U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said during the hearing last week that she had concerns about this issue as well as the question of whether she has jurisdiction over accused file sharers presumably from across the country, according to Corynne McSherry, an EFF attorney who was at the hearing.

The good news for file sharers is that Collyer told Dunlap Grubb and the film producers that they need to work with the EFF and the ACLU on providing information to those accused of copyright violations about their rights. That means it's unlikely Dunlap Grubb will be sending out any more of these notices until the issue is settled, McSherry said.

"The defendants may not know that they can raise these issues [of jurisdiction and mass litigation]," McSherry said. "I think we definitely planted a seed with the judge. This judge is going to be paying close attention to these cases to make sure the process is fair."

The good news for the filmmakers is that the judge rejected arguments by the EFF and the ACLU that Dunlap Grubb should be required to file a single lawsuit for every individual alleged to have violated copyright. Had the judge agreed, that would have dramatically driven up the costs of pursuing litigation and made the strategy much less appealing.

"We are pleased with what we believe was a very well considered opinion by Judge Collyer," said Thomas Dunlap, founder of Dunlap Grubb. "We are working with the EFF...to craft a notice to accompany the order to the Defendants in these cases."

The complaint involving "The Hurt Locker" is before another judge but that case is just getting started while a complaint involving "Far Cry," a movie from German director Uwe Boll, is further along in the legal process. In the ""Hurt Locker situation, Dunlap Grubb is waiting to receive permission from the court to subpoena the names of the people Voltage accuses of pirating the film.

With "Far Cry" and several other films, Dunlap Grubb has already acquired the names of the accused and has notified them that they should pay $1,500 to get rid of the lawsuit or else risk getting sued for as much as $150,000.