Who are copyright trolls?

The image is a gift from @WagTheCat to this site.


Copyright trolls are law firms or individual lawyers who adopted a lucrative scheme to profit from copyright infringement allegations through extortion. Copyright trolls represent holders of copyrights on movies (mostly pornography).

Troll lawyers or firms conspire with technological companies that monitor peer-to-peer (p2p) networks (BitTorrent or eDonkey2000) and find instances of alleged infringement. IP addresses, timestamps and file names are being recorded. Peer-to-peer networks survive because while downloading a file, a p2p client is also forced to upload already obtained pieces of that file to other participants, therefore trolls can claim not only illegal access to copyrighted works but also distribution. In some cases trolls themselves seed (upload) their client’s copyrighted works to p2p networks with the goal to entrap those who start sharing those works.

The next step is to match IP addresses to real people. For that purpose a troll files a lawsuit against John Does (judicial term for persons not yet known), lumping together many defendants, sometimes thousands, regardless of jurisdiction. Lumping together many people, trolls save on filing fees: a fee to file a civil lawsuit is $350; if they would file a lawsuit for each defendant separately, they would end up paying prohibitively large amount of money. Then they secure (obtain judge’s order for) a subpoena to the ISP that owns the recorded IP addresses. ISPs keep the records of dynamically assigned addresses at each moment and as such they can match IP + time stamp to a subscriber.

Once the names and contact information of subscribers accused in infringement are obtained, trolls send out virtually identical “litigation settlement” demand letters. These letters (and sometimes telephone calls) threaten defendants with costly lawsuits that can potentially result in as much as $150,000 statutory damage payments plus attorney fees. In addition, they threaten to raid your computer(s) in search for proof. To let this suit go away, trolls demand a couple of thousand dollars, increasing the amount if not paid promptly.

Profit is split among trolls, rightholders and companies that detected IPs.

It is not hard to see that this scheme is nothing else than extortion, where “settlement” is a euphemism of “ransom”. Given the settlement rate (30% and higher, especially in porno cases) this scheme is indeed lucrative, and in some cases can top the profit from a movie sale.

In most cases trolls have no intention of bringing their lawsuits to actual trial. The only goal is to obtain settlements — not judgments, which would require litigating and proving allegations. The only reason for bringing a case to a trial is to scare defendants and increase the pressure to settle.

It is not difficult to see immorality and flaws of this extortion scheme. I’ll cover only few points. Please read this blog and comments (as well as other Internet resources) to find out more.

1. Weak evidence. A recorded IP address is not equal to a person. There are many cases (open wireless network, IP spoofing, hacked connections, human error etc.) when innocent people are accused.

2. Perversion of the Law spirit. Mixing innocent people with those who indeed tried to obtain their clients’ works, trolls violate Blackstone’s formulation. Presumption of innocence is also trumped, as accused are required to proof their innocence.

3. Incentive to settle, even if innocent. Given the disproportionality of potential punishment and impeding attorney fees, it is cheaper and less time-consuming to settle than to litigate. In addition, fear to be named in a lawsuit and hence be associated with a porno case, which can ruin families and careers, creates an additional pressure. Consequently, many innocent people indeed opt to settle.

4. Due process violation. Defendants are not properly represented from the beginning. There is a catch-22 situation: in order to fight against a subpoena to ensure that the names won’t be revealed, those who chose to fight must reveal their names: courts do not allow anonymous parties to participate in the process. If an individual decides to fight openly, he becomes a target for selective prosecution by a troll: trolls need it to frighten others and discourage opposition.

5. Using heavy weaponry against unprepared individuals (inequality of arms). Lawyers possess substantial knowledge that they use against general public. Besides inducing fear to coerce settlements, they also engage in deceptive promises: suggesting that a defendant will be spared if he explains his innocence, they provoke self-incriminating statements and never hesitate to use defendant’s words against him.

6. Deceptive practices. In order to increase settlement rate, trolls resort to lies. They conceal important information from the Court. They make unrealistic and unnecessary threats to defendants. They grossly overstate the damages to copyright holders caused by infringement. As mentioned above, they provoke self-incriminating statements from not litigation-savvy defendants.

Read more on copyright trolls on EFF’s page and see their faces on Anons of Liberty site. This guest post guides through the history of speculative invoicing.

Why do I fight?

ArsTechnica ran a feature story about this site
and other “troll slayers” on 2/26/2013

Gill Sperlein rudely intruded my life in February 2011 when I received an email from AT&T saying that my identity was subpoenaed in relation to a gay pornography lawsuit. As any normal person, who never dealt with the law, I was stunned and upset. It took a while until I understood what a disgusting scam I was involved in as a victim. And for the record, I never shared IO Group’s filthy movies, not even heard about them.

Well, I’m a rational person, and some would expect me to act based on pure math, i.e. settle and forget. But I wouldn’t act rationally at the expense of dignity. I don’t want my name to be associated with gay pornography. I don’t want to send a message to the world that it is OK to blackmail innocent citizens.

I decided to file a motion to dismiss, and did it anonymously in a fear of retaliation. I did not expect much, but to my surprise, the court filed my motion, and Sperlein filed his opposition. I replied with detailed explanation of the scam. Again, I did not expect much, but hoped that the judge would read it and become aware of the real goal of lawsuits like this one — to extort money from defendants regardless of their guilt.

Seeing that the magistrate judge did not toss my anonymous filings, Sperlein requested to reassign the case to a district judge, and after that I filed another motion. This time my motion was struck on procedural grounds: it is not allowed to fight in a court anonymously. I had an option to file for a protective order, but decided not to: Sperlein’s goal is to get identities by any means, and a protective order is a joke — I would be known by initials, city and state. If eventually ISP delivers subpoenaed information and my location and initials are known, it will not be so hard to link my identity to the IP, and retaliation will follow. In addition, many requests for protective orders were denied in the past: some judges think that associating one’s name with gay pornography is a mere embarrassment, not a serious threat to one’s social and professional life. This may be true in San Francisco, but not in conservative states.

So I decided to start a blog to inform others about this fraud. I hope I helped some victims and inflicted some damage to troll’s business. I received many e-mails from people in similar predicaments and tried to do my best answering their questions. Reading e-mails and blog comments made me sure that my vision of what is going on is correct, and enraged me even more, especially when I read in a private email that one of Sperlein’s victims seriously considered suicide.

Judicial system is not inherently wrong, but it is very slow. Once a con artist finds a loophole in the law, he can inflict tremendous harm to society until judges eventually manage to seal this loophole when they finally realize that trolls use judicial system (hence taxpayer’s — yours — money) to enrich themselves, ruining families, lives, carriers in their quest for gold. I learned that one of the best weapons in the war against copyright trolls is publicity. So please help spread the word. E-mail, share, tweet about my posts, and follow me on Twitter.

My gravatar

Why lightning stroke? According to Wikipedia,

“A Scandinavian folk belief that lightning frightens away troll … the lack of trolls … in modern Scandinavia is explained as a result of the “accuracy and efficiency of the lightning strokes”.


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172 responses to ‘About

  1. Thank you for bringing this story to light! I am sorry to hear you were caught in the crossfire of a relatively new area of law that ‘in my opinion’ is only in the very beginning of getting ramped up. I understand your opinion of a Copyright ‘Troll’ as being the lawyer/firm that is ‘chasing’ an easy dollar, and there is no doubt that this May be the case in some instances.

    BUT, I strongly disagree with the actual Act that is being violated on millions of computers by millions of people who blatantly download/seed copyright protected materials! In your writings you only are shining light on the Trolls as the ‘pushers’ of their agenda, and your opinion, (which is respected) doesn’t empathize with the copyright infringed parties themselves.

    I’m sure the owners of the Videos whos content is being ‘stolen’ have every right to try a legal avenue to stop it, and at this stage in the tech world, I reckon these so-called “lucrative scheme” Trolls in most cases are simply doing the job they’re hired to do with the limited tools they have to do-so.

    So is it in the Law System that the problem really lays?; Where (Trolls) lack of ability to really pinpoint real violator as apposed to just ip addresses – OR; is it the that the real issues is more-so the violators themselves who don’t respect copyright; downloading and seeding what is clearly marked as Copyright Protected!

    I promote an adult site; I respect the hard work they put into it and the vision they have; I want their success; I want Lawyers to be honest(lol) and end users too. Good for you for bringing this to light: I DO agree it’s not a perfect legal process, and I hope your excellent blog creates much discussion toward a solution. p2p file sharing is a tool, not a license to Steal without resource!

    Cheers: Terence

    • Hello Terence.

      We also believe that the act of piracy is wrong and harmful. In this community you’ll hear very few ‘pro-piracy’ comments and if you do, you’ll probably hear calls for that individual to stop their illegal activities.

      Indeed, the reason so many of us here are so fighting angry is because we have been falsely accused, and of a crime we disagree with. I don’t know if you have ever been falsely accused, but there are few things in life than can make you more angry, more upset. Then add on to that the embarrassment of being publicly accused of a crime you didn’t commit, being forced to spend thousands of dollars and months of your life to defend yourself against false accusations, and when it’s all over, not even an apology from these cockroaches. There are people in this community whose cases against them ended years ago and they’re still here and still angry, because the injustice is so great that it leaves a permanent mark on the affected and we feel that we have to help combat this and help others.

      Malibu Media’s own counsel has admitted on the record that as many as 30% of the people they sue are not the actual infringers of their content. I am one of those 30% and if they had simply investigated their case against me, taken up my offers to examine my computer, looked at my evidence that showed that I wasn’t EVEN IN THE COUNTRY when many of the supposed infringements occured etc. and made a simple apology to me saying they had the wrong person, I would feel no ill will towards them. But this is not who those people are. They are crooks and liars, and far from being victims of piracy, they are profiteers of piracy.

      Noone here wants the US to become a free-for-all piracy haven like China. That is not who we are. We simply demand justice for the innocent and REASONABLE penalties for the crimes committed by those who actually are guilty. Just yesterday a default judgement was handed down slapping a defendant with $60,000 in damages. It appears that he actually was guilty, but this punishment is hugely, grossly, insanely disproportionate to the crime of downloading 24 illegally produced 5 minute videos. This is even a violation of the US Constitution, amendment 8 of which states:

      Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

      What could possibly be a more excessive fine than $60,000 for downloading 24 shitty videos?

      US copyright law, as it stands now, is broken. We’re just trying to restore sanity to this insane mess.

      • Thank you: I was going to reply but was rather busy recently. Now I don’t have to as you basically said it all. One small correction: It was CEG TEK’s Mike Meyer, not one of Lipscomb attorneys, who admitted to the 30% false positive. Although it is irrelevant: recent Malibu’s “polygraph” document also shows a shockingly large proportion of mis-identifications.

  2. We have been dealing with a copyright troll for over 6 months, about an ad that was run on our site by an advertiser. The ad was a 120×60 icon ad, that did have an image that was copyrighted by his client. The troll wants $18,000 to go away. We’ve already spent $6,000 paying our attorney to talk with this troll.

    • It seems to me that you are being scammed by both the troll and “your attorney.” I don’t think that the troll would dare to file an actual lawsuit over it. Although I don’t know this area pretty well: I’m dealing mostly with bittorent trolls; web image trolls is a distinct genera. Not that I don’t care, but in my experience focusing on a narrow area of injustice is the only way to make a change.

      Our brothers-in-arms ELI deal with this kind of vermin.

  3. We just got our letter from our ISP today. My head is spinning as I decide what route to take. Our paperwork has a list of 20-30 so called porn movies downloaded that we did not download and some are minutes apart. What may have caused that?

  4. Hi There,

    I have two letters requesting a settlement of $300 each for a single file torrented at 2 different times. I got caught at my university by accident. The company is Elegant Angels. I’m wondering on your suggestion on what I should do?


    • I assume it’s CEG-TEK. At this moment it is safe to ignore: these guys are not in a business of suing people, they prey on big numbers: even if they manage to scare 1% into paging, there is a profit.

      Read Discussions / Copyright Enforcement Group.

  5. have there been any other cases that have been shared with you, to follow? discussing a case with many others, or even sharing the experience may be frowned upon, but the cogs in my case are going to start very soon (as soon as a month, maybe?), so i wanted to know if you might be interested in following a current case.

    following specific cases might be a waste of time, now that i thought about it, but just wanted to throw it out there, since many cases i assume have not been shared publicly (for great reasons). and i am sure there are larger cases with more “oomph” than mine, so rejection would be understandable.

  6. One Year Update: Our troll went away. We called his bluff, I guess. Last we heard was that he was going to file a lawsuit against us, but he never did.

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