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Porn Lawsuits: Chicago Lawyer John Steele Goes After Alleged Illegal Downloaders

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An unnamed 70-something in the Bay Area was slapped with a surprising lawsuit last June. The doting grandmother was charged with illegally downloading pornographic videos over BitTorrent.

She told James Temple of the San Francisco Chronicle that she's never downloaded porn and doesn't know what BitTorrent is, and that she intends to fight the suit.

But the story has shone new light on one Chicago law firm that has sent out notices to nearly 100 people, strongly suggesting that they settle for thousands of dollars or else face much more serious fines and penalties -- and risk public humiliation.

John Steele, a partner at Steele Hansmeier PLLC, began filing the lawsuits last winter. As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, the adult film industry lauded him as a "pirate slayer" for his pursuit of illegal downloaders. His software tracks what he says is public information about BitTorrent users, including their IP address, and when he sees one who is downloading copyrighted pornographic material, he brings the IP address to a federal judge, asking to connect the IP to a name.

His firm then sends the person in question a letter like this one, warning them of fines of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The letter then offers you an out: a smaller settlement, of a few thousand dollars, payable to Steele Hansmeier. "To reiterate: if you act promptly you will avoid being named as a Defendant in the lawsuit."

Steele (no apparent relation to Lexington -- or Michael for that matter) says his clients, producers of adult films, are on the receiving end of the settlements, and argues that it's the only way for them to recoup their losses from massive internet piracy.

Indeed, the business is on the decline, in large part due to the tremendous availability of adult content on the internet, much of which is used against copyright. Last year, a collection of porn stars made a PSA urging consumers not to steal content, at the risk of killing the industry.

And Steele says he hasn't crossed any lines. "If we were doing anything unethical, after 95 cases I can assure you I wouldn't have a law license," he said, according to a Wednesday report from MSNBC.

But some free-speech advocates -- and a growing number of judges -- see it otherwise. Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Chronicle that the lawsuits are designed to compel people to settle, even if they're not necessarily guilty, especially given the embarrassing nature of the allegations and the guarantee of anonymity if the defendants settle.

"It puts these defendants in a tough spot, especially with the coercive element of the porn allegation," he told the paper.

A recent court ruling also suggests that Steele may be going too far. Judge Harold Baker recently refused to share the names of IP address holders with Steele, in part on the same grounds. From his decision:

Could expedited discovery be used to wrest quick settlements, even from people who have done nothing wrong? The embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether [producer] VPR has competent evidence to prove its case.

As the TechDirt blog pointed out, the judge also made another very good point: an IP address doesn't necessarily pinpoint one particular person -- especially given the preponderance of open wireless networks. The illegal downloader could be "the subscriber, someone in the subscriber’s household, a visitor with her laptop, a neighbor, or someone parked on the street at any given moment."

In any event, apparently erroneous cases like the one in San Francisco could do more damage to Steele's endeavors than any judge. The Recording Industry Association of America was engaged in a lengthy anti-piracy crackdown, which ground to a halt only when it made some major public gaffes, threatening serious prosecution against people it turned out had no connection to music downloading.

Oddly enough, in his interview in the Tribune last November, Steele was acutely aware of that danger.

"All you have to do is sue a priest who's never owned a computer and this is a major PR problem," he said.

She might not be a priest, but an innocent grandmother would be pretty close.