Porn Troll Lawyers Hit With Legal Fees For Bullying Defendant

Back in 2012, John Steele of Prenda Law — a firm that specializes in threatening to sue alleged porn file-sharers in order to force a settlement — was publicly bragging about his success, referring to himself in an interview as “the original copyright troll.” Recently, things haven’t gone so well, due in no small part to a disastrous attempt to sue Comcast and AT&T for phony claims of “hacking” one of their client’s websites.

For years, Prenda had been filing lawsuits on behalf of porn companies, naming thousand of “John Doe” defendants to be named later, then using subpoenas to get Internet providers to match customer names with IP addresses of alleged file-sharers. When AT&T and Comcast wouldn’t hand over the names of 6,600 such Doe defendants, the Prenda client amended the complaint in Aug. 2012 to include AT&T, Comcast, and someone named Alex Smith, alleging they were aiding and abetting hackers who had breached the client’s computers.

The claim was questionable from the start, appearing to be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to compel AT&T and Comcast to hand over the sought-after customer information during the discovery period.

In a way, this tactic was much like the thousands of legal letters Prenda and other porn copyright trolls have sent out to accused file-sharers, never intending to sue anyone but knowing that the threat of a lawsuit — especially one that outed the defendant as an alleged porn-downloader — was enough to make people fork over millions to make it go away.

But a few moderately clever copyright trolls stood no chance against the legal titans at AT&T and Comcast, and the plaintiff, Lightspeed Media, dropped the lawsuit in March.

While the two ISPs are probably not worried about their legal expenditures for making that case go away, Smith, the sole private citizen named in the case, wasn’t terribly thrilled with having to pay for lawyers in a case that should never have been filed, by lawyers that have made a practice of doing so.

So last spring he filed a motion with the court seeking the payment of excess legal fees by Steele and two of his cohorts.

In that motion [PDF], Smith says that when the process server handed him the summons in Aug. 2012, the process server also gave him a card bearing Steele’s info and told Smith that Steele was an important attorney from D.C. who had no interest in the case but could make it go away.

But it wasn’t true that Steele had no interest in the case as he appeared on that very day in court of behalf of the plaintiff.

The motion for legal fees alleges not only that Smith’s inclusion in the suit was baseless, fraudulent, and frivolous, but that the lawyers’ behavior met the “objectively unreasonable and vexatious” standard for meriting they pay the defendant’s excess legal fees.

“Steele, Hansmeier and Duffy have orchestrated a nationwide campaign through Prenda Law and other related entities that several courts have found extends beyond vexatious litigation into fraud on the court,” reads the defendant’s motion, which cites examples of Prenda using “straw defendants” who agree to have their names included on a lawsuit “as a springboard to subpoena the names of alleged co-conspirators,” and other cases where the firm is alleged to use “sham plaintiffs so it could skip the middleman, settling claims without any need to split the proceeds with a client.”

This week, the judge finally responded to that motion and sided with Smith, who will now have to provide itemized legal fees in order to determine what the lawyers must pay. Ars Technica estimates that it will be around $70,000, which isn’t a ton of money for a firm that has made millions off of merely threatening legal action, but may set a precedent that will discourage it from continuing its questionable practices.

“The litigation smacked of bullying pretense,” wrote the judge in his order [PDF].

The hope is that these are the final days of porn troll lawyers like Prenda — which was recently accused of using its own computers to upload clients’ porn files on file-sharing sites so it could then easily track those who downloaded the videos.

We believe in respecting copyright and don’t condone illegal sharing of copyrighted material, but strongarming consumers — any number of whom are innocent — into settling allegations out of fear is an unacceptable abuse of the legal system.

Prenda Law’s “hacking” suit against ISPs ends in total loss [ArsTechnica]