The Prenda trials are like the Honey Boo Boo of law. It’s a train wreck you just can’t look away from. Sex, money, and slapstick keystone-caper lawyering all in one. The Firm began a few years back saving the world from digital scum who steal movies; they are protectors of fine and upstanding films such as Sexual Obsession and Church of Bootyism 2 (both of which have been snubbed by the motion picture academy, most likely because the principal dialogue consisted of long strings of vowels spoken in frantic guttural). The trick was to find people who downloaded said movies, send them a letter, and get paid. And by “find people” I mean “make a wild-ass guess based on bad logic.” They filed a few thousand “John Doe” lawsuits forcing service providers to cough up details on which freakishly perverted user had said IP address. Then they sent out the kind of carefully worded threatening letter no one wants to get: “You’re the perv who stole Church of Bootyism 2, pay $4,000 or we tell your boss, your mother, your grandmother, and that girl at Starbucks you keep flirting with.” I never received one of those letters, so I guessed at the wording.
Some of those people couldn’t possibly have downloaded Church of Bootyism 2 because they were busy watching Honey Boo Boo or they were dead. But most people, it seemed, copped to it because nobody wants to be caught explaining to their neighbor and their kids kindergarten teacher that Church of Bootyism 2 was just for research, and they didn’t enjoy it. Then US District Judge Otis Wright (who may look like the Incredible Hulk) said “This case doth reek of Church of Bootyism 2 lies” and started poking around. Turns out Prenda had been pulling off one of the ballsiest digital copyright maneuvers in years. The Prenda lawyers may have uploaded and shared Church of Bootyism 2 to begin with, only to track every download. They may not have been acting on behalf of the true copyright holder of Church of Bootyism 2. Oh, and one of the lawyers forged his neighbors signature on a filing for one of their shell companies. Seriously, folks, free entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.
While Prenda is a hilariously extreme example, the case has some bearing on writers and content creators. What fueled Prenda in the first place was the DMCA. Copyright law is tricky, and DMCA doesn’t make it any easier. Someone just needs to point a finger and cry foul without any real evidence, and content is usually taken down by the service provider. YouTube has a standing policy of killing content, and so do most hosting services. Big media has a standing policy of whining to the authorities like an overworked actor in Church of Bootyism 2 even when said content doesn’t belong to them, isn’t related, or isn’t infringing.
There are two points to this: you may one day find yourself targeted wrongfully in a DMCA violation (or maybe rightfully, if you were such a fan of Church of Bootyism that you had to download the sequel), or you’re a content creator with something to steal. The law sides with the content creators. When you write a story (or make a video of your dog bringing you a beer) and post it online, it’s still yours even if you give it away. The internet is the oddest place the universe has ever known, like going to a store where they sell high-end bath towels next to 50-Shades Lego sets. It’s the wild west. It also means protecting your work is that much harder should someone like Prenda try to steal it and sue everybody who’s infringing, justified or not. This leaves service providers up the well known fecal tributary without proper means of locomotion. Hosting companies and service providers are required by law to take DMCA takedown notices seriously, but aren’t required to investigate because it’s not their job. Though it looks like the Prenda lawyers may end up in federal Pound-Me-In-The-Ass prison, there still aren’t any laws in place to stop the next Prenda wannabe. Until copyright law is fixed, we’re stuck in this mess.
But there is some hope. Should you get one of those “Pay us or else” letters, bear in mind many judges are taking the stance that settlement is pretty much extortion. Do some homework on the legal letter. If it hasn’t been filed in your district, or if it was filed with dozens of other “John Doe’s”, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be thrown out. And on the opposite side, should you be in the same boat as the director and writer (was there a writer?) of Church of Bootyism 2, there are methods of responding to a DMCA claim.
And if you don’t fall in either of those categories, you get to sit back and enjoy the ride. The truth is, I just wanted to make you all read the words Church of Bootyism 2 a bunch of times.