Law Practice

How two California solos helped take down ‘porn troll’ Prenda Law


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Morgan Pietz "got involved through the referral grapevine" and has been busy with cases ever since. Photo by Natalie Young.

By now, the Prenda Law saga is part of legal folklore, though the story seems to never end.

It began as an enterprising effort in which Internet users received demand letters threatening lawsuits for downloading pornographic movies in violation of copyright. They were given the opportunity to pay a cash settlement (and avoid public embarrassment). According to federal court documents, the figure was $4,000. In a May ruling, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II laid out a scheme involving shell corporations, the filing of “boilerplate complaints” to encourage settlements—but the dropping of complaints if “faced with a determined defendant”—as well as identity theft, and hiring “lawyers and witnesses to provide disinformation about the cases and the nature of their operation.”

Wright of the Central District of California ordered penalties, including referring the plaintiffs lawyers involved for sanctions by their state and federal bars and awarding attorney fees to the defense attorneys. While this order (PDF) is being appealed, actions—and other allegations—involving Prenda or its shell corporations have popped up in states including Minnesota and Florida.

But behind that continuing drama is the story of the lawyers who took up the defense against the Prenda suits. A couple of California solos had much to do with unraveling the scam.

MEET MORGAN PIETZ

Morgan Pietz is a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based IP attorney in private practice who focused on copyright law as an associate at Paul Hastings.

“I got involved through the referral grapevine,” Pietz says. “Once I did the first one and I started looking into what was going on, I was just blown away. In early 2012, I put myself on a list of attorneys with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who defend these kinds of cases.”

Within an hour or two, Pietz’s phone started ringing.

“Coincidentally, there was a big wave of BitTorrent copyright infringement cases that had just been filed by various pornographers in the Central District of California, including, most notably, Malibu Media,” he says.

BitTorrent is a file-sharing protocol that allows peer-to-peer distribution of large amounts of data. Porn companies and others have begun suing people for downloading copyrighted movies using BitTorrent.

The legal issues in the Malibu Media cases were similar to those with Prenda, except that Malibu Media is an actual pornography producer.

“The focus was on ‘swarm joinder,’ ” Pietz says. “Malibu and others would try and file a single complaint and pay one filing fee and then target dozens of defendants at a time, alleging that everyone who was downloading a given file was part of the same ‘swarm.’ … After I spent a few months briefing the issue all around the state, in a series of decisions … one after another various courts in the Eastern, Central and Southern districts of California all came out against swarm joinder.”

The Malibu cases led to Pietz’s involvement with Prenda. “I defended a few cases on behalf of people being targeted by Prenda in California, and one of those is the one that resulted in a lot of attention and dealt a blow to Prenda, the Ingenuity 13 LLC case.” (Ingenuity was one of Prenda’s dummy companies.)

Once Pietz had the court’s attention, “it was a matter of laying out dozens of exhibits and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. After two evidentiary hearings, Prenda’s attorneys took the Fifth, and it’s pretty unusual for plaintiffs lawyers to plead the Fifth.”

Pietz says the Prenda case has led to his being sought out in similar situations, and he is representing defendants being sued by Warner Bros. for copyright infringement over DVDs sold on Amazon.com that Warner says are counterfeit.

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Nick Ranallo clued in on the case when a friend “got a threat letter and asked ‘Is this for real?’ I started looking into it and suspected it was a wide-ranging situation.” Photo by Janet Colucci.

MEET NICK RANALLO

Nick Ranallo is a solo in the San Francisco Bay Area who got involved in Prenda because “I thought it was my duty.”

“I actually got involved when somebody close to me got a threat letter and asked ‘Is this for real?’ ” Ranallo says. “I started looking into it and suspected it was a wide-ranging situation and wrote a couple of articles for TorrentFreak [a blog on file-sharing news] about these kinds of cases.”

“I set a fixed flat-fee representation so if anybody ultimately got sued, we could collect attorney’s fees from their side,” Ranallo says. “So I got clients who were willing to fight if they knew it was a fixed fee.”

Eventually, Ranallo collaborated with Pietz on the Ingenuity case, which broke the dam. “I had been talking to Morgan for a while, bouncing ideas off of each other.”

Both Pietz and Ranallo recommend that attorneys take on BitTorrent cases, but with a caveat.

“Having a copyright background is an important part as each case has its own nuances,” Pietz says. “Here’s the problem—if you’re going to do these kinds of cases, knowing these plaintiffs, it takes a bit of familiarity to know where the pressure points are.”

“I would definitely recommend that attorneys take these kinds of defendants and clients to ensure that the plaintiffs don’t go unchecked,” Ranallo says. “It’s important but not financially lucrative. We were awarded attorney’s fees, but I’m still trying to collect.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Prenda Patrol: 2 California solos helped take down a ‘porn troll’.”

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