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Accused 'Hurt Locker' pirates turn to law school

Few are as familiar with the lawsuits filed by indie film studios against accused file sharers as Robert Talbot. The law professor represents 23 such people free of charge.

Confused, angry, and scared is how the accused film pirates come to Robert Talbot.

Robert Talbot (right) oversees the Internet Justice Clinic at the University of San Francisco, where the focus now is on defending accused illegal file sharers. Heather Hunt

As of last week, Talbot, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, was representing 23 people accused by independent film studios of copyright violations. In lawsuits filed against thousands of people from across the country, the filmmakers allege that the defendants distributed unauthorized copies of their movies, such as the Academy Award-winning "The Hurt Locker," across file-sharing networks.

Talbot guesses that no other copyright lawyer in the country defends as many accused file sharers. His program's allure is obvious. He possesses more resources than many law firms, since students help defend clients. Talbot and USF's Internet Justice Clinic also offer legal assistance for the right price: free.

"We try to go into situations where something wrong is done to someone and part of our mission is to help them," said Talbot, who has been at USF for 40 years. "We try to combine all that while at the same time teaching students."

Handling this many cases puts Talbot at the center of the most sweeping antipiracy litigation since 2003. That was the year the Recording Industry Association of America began suing individuals for downloading music illegally. The RIAA sued at least 18,000 people before abandoning the strategy two years ago.

While there's no telling how long the indie studios will continue litigating, they have filed complaints against thousands and have created a sort of assembly-line process to churning out suits and collecting money. At the rate they are suing people, the film companies will quickly surpass the number of people sued by the RIAA. The filmmakers say they have little choice, arguing that movie piracy has cost them millions and threatens their livelihoods.

So lots of people now must lawyer up.

A few of those accused by the studios have contacted CNET, typically right after receiving a letter from their Internet service providers notifying them their records have been subpoenaed by one of the studios. Some acknowledge that they shared the movies. Others say they are innocent. The one thing most have in common is that they don't know what to do.

Many eventually find their way to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for Web users and tech companies. EFF offers a long list of attorneys who offer legal help to accused file sharers. Talbot has worked with EFF for years.

Last week, for a separate story, I spoke with numerous attorneys on EFF's list. Not all of the lawyers had the same view about how to handle the suits. Some seemed to favor settling. According to several lawyers, the minimum settlement amount the studios have accepted is $1,000.

Talbot said he doesn't believe innocent people should have to pay a dime. He says some who have contacted him have open Wi-Fi connections and don't know who in the neighborhood may have shared the movies. Others suspect the films were shared by a visiting relative or guest.

"I feel like that this is a good cause, Talbot said. "I'm always looking for ways to motivate students. They are incensed about what is going on."

Talbot said he's close to maxing out the number of cases he can take but he's also on the lookout for those that sound like winners. He said he doesn't think the law will support the studios' legal arguments and wouldn't mind testing them in court. He said: "I have a couple of cases that would be good to take all the way."