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Why Are So Many People In Northern Illinois Being Sued For Downloading Porn?

More and more often over the last few years people across the Chicago area have opened their mail boxes and email inboxes to find a legal notice that’s as strange as it is intimidating.

The letter alleges the receiver has downloaded and distributed copyrighted material--most of the time a pornographic video. Without a quick and sizable payment, the letter reads, the owner of that copyrighted material will sue the alleged thief in open court.

When Alex got the letter in the spring of 2011, he was struck first by how much money he may be on the hook for.

“Copyright law allows for statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 per infringed work,” was the language in his letter. “$150,000 if willful.”

Alex is a Russian immigrant with a wife and daughter who had only come to the Chicago area in the year 2000. At the time, he says, he didn’t know there was a difference between criminal and civil legal charges. He vehemently denies stealing any film off the internet. But then, as now,  the charge was not easy to talk about.

The film he was alleged to have stolen was a gay pornographic video called, “The Warehouse.” WBEZ agreed to keep Alex’s last name private for this story.

“If my name is there on the net, connected to gay pornography, it may be not so good for me, if potential employers are...making their research.”

Alex’s story is surprisingly common. Between 2010 and June of this year, about 13,000 IP addresses have been targeted in this kind of copyright  case filed in the Northern District of Illinois, according to data compiled by Matthew Sag, Professor of Law at Loyola University in Chicago. (Every internet-subscriber  has a unique IP address, so that translates into roughly 13,000 people.)

This kind of copyright lawsuit, often referred to as “copyright trolling,” has exploded across the country. Pornography-related copyright cases filed against people accused of illegal downloading went from 2.7% of all copyright cases filed in U.S. Federal Court in 2010, to 39% in 2015.

(Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)
The Northern District of Illinois sees more of these cases than anywhere else in the country---it’s been the home of roughly 15% of these cases since 2013, according to Sag.

Sag says that the threat of exposure is key to the success of a “copyright troll lawsuit.” Initially, these cases are filed anonymously. Settle, and the case stays anonymous forever. But if you chose to fight the case in court, “then there is a threat,” Sag said. “Sometimes implicit but usually explicit, that we will forever attach your name on the public record to the downloading of, you know, insert whatever pornographic title you want.”

There are a number of ways someone innocent of illegal downloading could be named in this kind of copyright case, says Jeffrey Antonelli, a Chicago Lawyer whose firm specializes in this sort of litigation. If your wifi is not password protected, a neighbor or someone else could steal a video on your network and leave a digital trail leading back to you. Another common scenario, according to Antonelli, is an elderly person struggling to understand why they were being named in this litigation, only to realize later that a younger relative had downloaded the material on their computer or internet.

Roughly half of Antonelli’s clients tell him they are innocent, he said. Still, many settle anyway.

“Often times people tell us, look, I can’t deal with this. This will put my job at risk. Or my reputation in the community--to have me named in a copyright lawsuit involving pornography could be devastating. So, I want to settle.”

Sag points out that owners of copyright material have the legal right to protect their work--and illegal downloading is a real problem for content creators. But he says “copyright trolling” is not a good solution.

“The problem here is the way these settlements are leveraged with this extreme personal threat, this extreme invasion of privacy, coupled with this extreme economic threat. If it's not extortion it's certainly, I think for many people, an intolerable degree of pressure.”

D. Gill Sperlein, a California-based attorney, does not buy this argument.

“I represent a lot of clients that make adult film,” he said. “I don’t associate any shame with it. And if someone else does, I feel bad for them. ”

Previously Sperlein filed many copyright lawsuits--it was his name that was listed on Alex’s legal letter--although he says he has not filed any in a few years.

Sperlein says stealing pornography is the same as stealing anything else-- it’s illegal.

And he point out that, for the adult film companies he has represented, box office revenue is non existent, and advertising sales are minimal.

“What’s the option that my clients have? Is it because they are in adult film production that they don’t have a right to protect their interests the same way that Hollywood has? That doesn’t seem very fair, does it?

Alex says his case was ultimately dismissed. But, at least in Northern Illinois, it does not seem like this type of copyright litigation will slow in the near future.

Recently, a defendant in a Northern Illinois copyright case argued that he should be allowed to remain anonymous in court, because, he argued, the company suing him was leveraging his fear of embarrassment to force a settlement.

The judge ruled against him.

Miles Bryan is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @miles_bryan

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