Frequently, when a copyright holder starts a BitTorrent-related lawsuit, they simply provide the IP address of the defendant and get a subpoena that allows them to obtain the identity of a supposed pirate. This method has allowed copyright holders to make very large sums of money without ever having to actually go to trial. However, a Judge Michael Baylson at the Pennsylvania District Court recently ruled that an IP address is not enough evidence to single out one person, as people not subscribed to the ISP in question could have gained access to said IP address.
This ruling is something anyone who is even remotely familiar with technology is aware of, as walking down the street with a smartphone reveals numerous unprotected Wi-Fi signals that anyone can just hop on and use for whatever purpose. Due to this basic concept, Baylson states, “there is no reason to assume an ISP subscriber is the same person who may be using BitTorrent to download the alleged copyrighted material,” but also states that the rights of copyright holders cannot be ignored either, and thus, a trial would be necessary to suss out the truth. Seems odd that it took this long to note that.
In this case, Judge Baylson has declared a Bellwether trial necessary, which is a trial that is the result of a large number of plaintiffs filing suit based on a similar claim, where the result of the trial will be used in future proceedings.
This Bellwether trial, which is focused on five defendants, is the first time BitTorrent-related evidence will be tested in court. This may seem odd, but previously, BitTorrent piracy cases haven’t made it all the way to trial. The process and outcome of the case will be extremely interesting for the strength of a piracy defense or prosecution in general, because this will be the first time we’ll receive an actual ruling about whether or not an IP address directly points to an individual, or is simply seen as a connection on which anyone can hop. Of course, if the trial does find that simply an IP address is enough to convict an alleged pirate, the Bellwether nature of the trial will set a very scary precedent. However, if the trial finds that the minimal evidence copyright holders usually present in these cases isn’t enough evidence to convict an alleged pirate, then copyright holders are going to have to implement new practices to find legitimate pirates, and lay off the trolling.
The result of the trial will only apply to U.S. law, but it’ll still be a major step in some direction, either for copyright holders or defendants.
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