Court Orders Pornhub To Identify Potentially Thousands Of Users

Just like any other copyright holder, porn studios can — and do — exercise their rights under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to force X-rated “tube” sites (think YouTube, but with more genitals) to take down infringing videos. One company has apparently gotten tired of this game of Whac-A-Mole and gotten a court order that could lead to legal threats against thousands of people who uploaded videos to one popular tube site.

The folks at Seychelles-based Foshan Ltd. (which operates porn websites under the “Wankz” brand) recently sought a subpoena requiring that Pornhub turn over the information on users accused of posting videos taken from one of Foshan’s sites.

A federal court in Los Angeles recently granted that subpoena [PDF], which includes a nearly 90-page list of all the allegedly infringing material. We didn’t count each title, but there appear to be somewhere between 1,600 to 2,000 videos referenced in the subpoena.

The subpoena gives Pornhub until May 1 to turn over the “names, email addresses, IP addresses, user history, posting history, physical addresses, telephone numbers, and any other identifying or account information” for these users. The company can also try to fight the order in court.

We’ve reached out to Pornhub and its parent company, MindGeek, about this subpoena and will update if we receive a response.

As TorrentFreak points out, this sort of subpoena is not the usual approach for dealing with infringement on tube sites. Typically, X-rated content companies will just send DMCA takedown notices, resulting in the offending videos being removed from the site.

Foshan says in its original court filing [PDF] that it did send a takedown notice, and it appears that Pornhub obliged this request. We spot-checked a handful of URLs listed in the subpoena (thank god Comcast is pinky-swearing it won’t sell my browsing history, right?) and each one led to a video that had been removed from Pornhub at the request of the copyright holder.

What remains to be seen is what Foshan would do with this information. It could use it to try to match this list to its own subscriber roster to weed out users for violating their agreement.

A more worrisome tactic would be for Foshan to take the porn “copyright troll” approach, where the copyright holder demands high-dollar settlements with alleged infringers out of fear of being publicly named in a lawsuit accusing them of uploading a video called “Injured Cheerleader Meets With Athletic Trainer For 1 On 1” (One of the few titles on the subpoena we could actually publish here without having to bust out the asterisks).

It’s worth noting that a large number of the Pornhub links included in the subpoena are for videos hosted on the site’s “Premium” tier. While all Pornhub users must register in order to upload, the free tier of the site doesn’t appear to require a credit card or any proof of ID, so it would make it difficult to bring a successful lawsuit against someone based on information that could easily be faked. However, the Premium tier requires the user to pay a monthly or annual fee, making it much easier to more definitively say that User X is, in reality, John Smith from Springfield.

Copyright trolls have largely focused on going after individuals who uploaded or re-shared videos on torrent sites. The companies would gather the IP addresses of people who’d participated in the sharing of video files and then get subpoenas to identify the actual people associated with those accounts.

In recent years trolls have faced increased resistance from broadband providers amid revelations that some of the biggest trolls may have been uploading content in “honey pot” schemes, deliberately trying to tempt users into illegally re-sharing their videos.

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