Innocent people are getting letters from lawyers claiming they should pay for films they've never seen.
A Hertfordshire couple in their 60s were horrified to receive a letter last week from lawyers at Davenport Lyons accusing them of downloading a hardcore gay porn movie. It demanded they pay £503 for copyright infringement or face a high
court action. The 20-page pre-settlement letter from Davenport Lyons, acting on behalf of German pornogaphers, insisted they pay £503 to their clients for the 115 minute film Army Fuckers which features Gestapo officers and Czech
The bewildered couple contacted Guardian Money. We were offended by the title of the film. We don't do porn - straight or gay - and we can't do downloads. We have to ask our son even to do an iTunes purchase.
But this Hertfordshire couple are not alone. A large number of people have received this letter, provoking a massive outcry on web forums such as slyck.com and torrentfreak which estimate 25,000 of these letters have been sent out. If all the recipients
paid up, it would net £12.5m - more than almost any porn film has made.
Media expert Michael Coyle at Southampton-based solicitors Lawdit, is fighting on behalf of individuals who have received the letter from Davenport Lyons. Owners of films, music and computer games obviously have to protect their rights and prevent
illegal copying, otherwise everyone would get all sorts of content for free.
"But many of these letters have been sent to people who have no idea what a download is. We've had straight pensioners complain, and a mother who had the shock of having to question her 14-year-old son about gay porn because he was the only apparent
user of the internet connection that was registered to her.
Coyle says Davenport Lyons represent DigiProtect, a German company with rights to both pornographic films. He questions the amount demanded and methods used to identify computers alleged to have downloaded material. He believes the sum demanded is out of
all proportion to the alleged injury. In one case, Davenport Lyons wanted £500 for a £20 game. The alleged file-sharing would have cost only about £50 - the rest is legal costs.
Coyle offers a £50 service for those who refuse to cave in to the demands as he believes some of the firm's successes are due to consumers paying up because they cannot afford the legal costs of defending themselves. They have won court cases
including a high-profile £16,000 on a games download. But these have not been defended. My advice is to deny file sharing to any such request.
Consumer magazine Which? has complained to the solicitors' watchdog about a London law firm that sent bullying letters to
hundreds of innocent consumers.
Davenport Lyons has been hunting for internet users who it believes have illegally shared copies of video games and gay pornography. The alleged file-sharers received letters from the law firm demanding payment of £500 compensation for copyright
However, letters sent out rely on IP addresses and with so many unsecured wireless networks and file sharing sites which spoof IP addresses, serious questions are being asked about the validity of evidence put forward by Davenport Lyons, evidence already
discredited by at least two other European countries.
The case was featured on BBC's Watchdog programme this week, and both Watchdog and The Real Hustle have highlighted the relative ease with which many home networks can be breached. Many of those wrongly accused by Davenport Lyons say
that their claims of innocence are ignored completely and simply followed with continued demands for money.
Michael Coyle, solicitor advocate with Lawdit who is currently representing hundreds of UK citizens who have received threatening letters, says that using IP addresses alone to pinpoint file sharers is a nonsense and that Davenport Lyons are using
Which? has written to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority complaining about what it describes as bullying and excessive , pointing out that during a recession, more and more companies will be looking to make money from individuals and that
the SRA should take decisive action. Which? has invited anyone wrongly accused by Davenport Lyons to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Lawson, editor for Hellmail the postal industry news site said: Its a disgrace that an apparently respected firm of solicitors is relying on such poor evidence and sending out letters to frighten the wits out of people that in many cases have
done nothing wrong at all, and then for those people to discover that they are not even being listened to.
BT, the UK's largest broadband provider, sent details about its customers to ACS:Law, the firm of London solicitors at the centre of a huge data
privacy row, in a form that could be read by anyone – and which have now spilt onto the web.
BT can confirm that it did send unencrypted data to ACS:Law, a BT spokeswoman told the Guardian: However, this was not the cause of the leak. At a later date, due to a cyber-attack on the systems of the law firm, data that it held was leaked.
At this time we do not believe any of BT's customers details have been compromised, although we are continuing to pressure ACS Law for confirmation of this. We were obliged to comply with court orders to provide information to ACS Law, as was any
other ISP, where they were served with such orders.
Due to serious concerns about the integrity of the process that is being used by rights holders, we will resist efforts to share more customer details with rights holders and those acting on their behalf until we can be sure that alleged copyright
infringements have some basis and customers are treated fairly.
The case has brought rows over the standards of evidence required under the Digital Economy Act – under which persistent file-sharers could face restrictions on their internet connection – into sharp focus.
ACS:Law's evidence would be sufficient under the new regime being brought in by the act to count as a first strike – which would involve a warning letter from the customer's ISP. But pressure groups opposed to the DEA say that the quality of
evidence acceptable under the act for such measures falls far below that which would be needed to prove a case in court.
Privacy International is seeking legal advice about the possibility of bringing charges against BT for contempt of court. Hanff said the breach by BT appeared to contravene the Norwich Pharmeceutical Order which requires data to be sent as encrypted
Microsoft Excel files.
ACS:Law already faces the prospect of a fine of up to £500,000 if the Information Commissioner determines that it was responsible for the data leak. The Information Commissioner has said he will include BT's handling of data – which may leave the
company in breach of the Data Protection Act and a high court order – in its investigation into how the information was made publicly available.
The personal details of more than 8,000 Sky broadband customers, 400 Plusnet customers and 5,000 other Britons accused of illicit filesharing were exposed on the website of ACS:Law, a legal firm which has been targeted by online attacks from a number of
online forums due to its involvement in moves against people alleged to have shared copyrighted content.
ACS:Law would typically write to customers whose details it had obtained and demand payments of between £500 and £700 for the alleged breaches of copyright. Although some people did pay the demands, many others ignored them. Few of the cases
are understood to have reached court.
Andrew Heaney, executive director of strategy and regulation at Talk Talk, said: It's a stark reminder of the dangers of giving out customer details to third parties in trying to combat file sharing. While we do not condone illegal file sharing, we
have consistently argued for better ways of combating copyright theft. Handing over customer details to law firms to seek 'compensation', based on accusations from rights holders, is not the answer.
The Guardian understands that ISPs charge ACS:Law around £65 for an individual customer's information. Some broadband providers charge by the hour to supply customer data – some thought to be charging up to £500 per hour – while others fix
prices to a per-customer basis.
The anti-piracy law firm ACS:Law accidentally published its entire email archive online, effectively revealing how the company managed to extract over a million dollars (£636,758.22) from alleged file-sharers since its operation started. On
average, 30% of the victims who were targeted paid up, and this money was divided between the law firm, the copyright holder and the monitoring company.
Right before the weekend the notorious ACS:Law managed to expose backups of its entire website and email database to the outside world. Hundreds of people have meanwhile started to dissect the contents of the mails, and are sharing their findings in
forums and in comments posted online.
The emails also shed a whole new light on the effectiveness of the letters of claim that are being sent out to thousands of BitTorrent users and how the recouped money was divided.
Over the last two years 11,367 letters have been sent out. In 40% of the cases the respondents never replied, and another 30% disputed their claim. This means that on average 30% of the accused file-sharers chose to settle by paying between £350
and £700 per infringement allegation.
The recouped money is generally divided between three parties. The law firm, the copyright holder and the monitoring company that provided IP addresses of alleged infringers.
Documents in the leak also show ACS:Law admitting that they asked for a settlement of £495 in order to break the psychological £500 barrier to maximize revenues.
Hot on the heels of the recent announcement in court that ACS:Law will stop chasing alleged file-sharers, comes an even more dramatic development. According to a document seen by TorrentFreak, both ACS:Law and their copyright troll client MediaCAT have
just completely shut down their businesses. The news comes just days before a senior judge is due to hand down a ruling on the pair's activities.
According to a copy of a document obtained by TorrentFreak, which appears to have been sent out by Crossley during the last week, ACS:Law have not only stopped all file-sharing related work as previously reported, but actually shut down completely 31st
January 2011. Furthermore, the document adds that ACS:Law's only remaining speculative invoicing client -- MediaCAT -- has also ceased trading.
Ahead of Judge Birss' judgement due on Tuesday, it would seem to some that Mr Crossley and Mr Bowden are attempting to avoid not just 'judicial scrutiny' but financial responsibility for the flawed claims that they foolishly decided to issue, consumer group BeingThreatened told TorrentFreak on hearing the news:
They perhaps hoped that they might gain a judgement which they could use to threaten future letter recipients, instead their greed has led to the exposure of the significant and manifold flaws in the legal and evidential basis of the speculative
invoicing scheme they employed.
The Patents Country Court began yet another hearing to announce how more than two dozen previously filed cases should be handled. Judge Birss QC slammed the scheme operated by the pair and denied them the opportunity to drop the cases.
The court decided that ACS:Law would not be allowed to drop the 26 cases against alleged file-sharers, an answer to one of the key questions from the earlier hearing. While the copyright holders are being given 14 days to join the action, it is doubtful
they will. If this happens, all MediaCAT cases against these defendants will be dismissed in March.
Yet again ACS:Law and client MediaCAT were heavily criticized, with the Judge reiterating that both companies have a very real interest in avoiding public scrutiny because of the revenue they generated from wholesale letter writing.
Whether it was intended to or not, I cannot imagine a system better designed to create disincentives to test the issues in court, said the Judge. Why take cases to court and test the assertions when one can just write more letters and collect
payments from a proportion of the recipients?
Lawyer Andrew Crossley from the now defunct ACS:Law faced the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal over his disastrous foray into speculative invoicing -- the chasing down of alleged file-sharers with the sole aim of receiving cash settlements. In a
surprising turn-around from previous displays of bravado, Crossley contested only one of the seven charges against him. The Tribunal suspended him from acting as a lawyer for 2 years.