On Monday, March 6, attorney John Steele pled guilty to multiple conspiracy charges for his role in a massive scheme in which he and his partners used fraudulent copyright infringement settlements to extort money from pornography viewers.
Steele, along with other members of the firm Prenda Law, admitted they obtained copyrights to pornographic content, uploaded the content to online file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay, then filed lawsuits against downloaders for violation of their copyright in the pornographic works. Many viewers settled in order to avoid the embarrassment of disclosing their pornography consumption in open court. Before the scheme was brought down, Prenda raked in roughly $6,000,000 from settlements without ever bringing a claim to trial.
The Prenda Law scheme has been cited as a major example of the so-called “patent troll” business model being transferred to the copyright context. Like those entities, which became famous for acquiring broadly-worded patents to basic technology and suing companies in hopes of forcing settlements, Prenda bought up the rights to intellectual property only to sue people with it. Further, the scheme involved a number of layers of subterfuge – Prenda attorneys created shell ‘client’ entities for the sole purpose of holding the intellectual property. Unusually for a “troll,” however, Steele and others involved in the scheme apparently had a direct role in creating some of the pornographic content.
The conduct underpinning the charges against the Prenda attorneys was first brought to light in Ingenuity 13 LLC v. John Doe, a case in the Central District of California.
Attorney Pleads Guilty for Role in Multi-Million Dollar Scheme to Fraudulently Obtain Copyright Infringement Settlements from Victims Who Downloaded Pornographic Movies, United States Department of Justice (March 6, 2017), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-pleads-guilty-role-multi-million-dollar-scheme-fraudulently-obtain-copyright.
Joe Mullin, It’s Finally Over: Mastermind behind Prenda Law porn trolls pleads guilty, Ars Technica (March 6, 2017, 11:25 AM), https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/03/prenda-laws-john-steele-pleads-guilty-to-fraud-money-laundering/.
Ingenuity 13 LLC v. John Doe, No. 2:12-CV-8333-ODW JCX, 2013 WL 1898633, 2013 Copr. L. Dec. P 30, 423 (C.D. Cal. May 6, 2013), aff’d, 651 Fed. Appx. 716.
Elif Sonmez, Copyright Troll or Ugly Rights Holder? The Spread of Troll-Tactics and Solutions to the Abuse of the Courts and Degradation of the Copyright Protection Scheme, 19 Intell. Prop. L. Bull. 137 (2015).