Is the process of copyright trolling protected by the First Amendment? That appears to be the claim that both Rightscorp and Warner Bros. are making in response to a class action lawsuit filed against them.
Back in November, we wrote about a class action lawsuit filed against Rightscorp, by lawyer Morgan Pietz. Rightscorp, of course, is a company trying (and mostly failing) to make copyright trolling slightly more respectable by shaking down accused infringers (based on a questionable methodology) for somewhat lower amounts than traditional copyright trolls. Morgan Pietz, if you don’t know, is one of the key lawyers who helped take down infamous copyright troll Prenda Law — so his involvement was noteworthy.
Since November, when the lawsuit was initially filed, there’s been some back and forth in the lawsuit (and even the main named plaintiff has changed). In the first amended complaint [pdf] that was filed last month with new lead plaintiff, John Blaha, the claims about violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act have been removed, to focus mainly on violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and abuse of process. The TCPA bans autodialing telemarketers, and Pietz is trying to argue that Rightscorp’s autodialers fall under this law. The abuse of process claims focus on how Rightscorp got access to various people to shakedown, using DMCA 512(h) subpoenas. This is the process — which courts have clearly rejected — by which copyright trolls think they can issue subpoenas to ISPs about potential infringers, without first filing a lawsuit. Every few years, copyright trolls think they’ve newly discovered this loophole even though the courts have rejected it. The lawsuit has also added key Rightscorp clients, Warner Bros. and BMG, as defendants as well.
Last week, Rightscorp responded [pdf] by arguing that the case should be dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP law. Now, we’ve been huge supporters of California’s anti-SLAPP law and believe that we need a similar federal anti-SLAPP law. Anti-SLAPP laws allow defendants to quickly get lawsuits dismissed when it’s clear those lawsuits are nothing more than attempts to silence their public speech (SLAPP standing for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.”) However, I’m hard pressed to see how robocalling someone demanding they pay up or get sued is “public participation” in any way. Here’s how Rightscorp makes its argument however:
The abuse of process claim should be dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, as Plaintiff’s attempt to recover damages from Defendants and enjoin them from making further subpoena applications impermissibly impairs Defendants’ free speech and petitioning rights. The imposition of the remedies Plaintiff seeks is prohibited as it would unduly burden Defendants’ efforts to invoke legal process to identify copyright violators who illegally distribute Rightscorp’s clients’ protected works. As the California courts have consistently held, claims attacking a defendant’s efforts to invoke the legal system are subject to being automatically stricken under anti-SLAPP.
But that’s not true at all. It’s hard to see how anyone can argue that merely filing a subpoena for information is protected free speech. There are plenty of situations where courts have ruled that such subpoenas are inappropriate — including (as mentioned above) in nearly identical cases. It’s not a free speech issue at all. But having gone down this path, Warner Bros. (Rightscorp’s main client) has decided to chime in as well [pdf].
Specifically, Plaintiff’s claim impermissibly challenges Defendant’s petitioning conduct, which is protected under California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
While I’m not convinced that Pietz’s class action will survive (for a variety of reasons), the idea that the lawsuit itself should be barred under California’s anti-SLAPP law seems ridiculous. The lawsuit is not seeking to block Rightscorp’s First Amendment rights. It’s seeking to stop robocalls and illegal subpoenas that are used to allow Rightscorp to shakedown people for settlement money by bombarding them with demands to pay up to avoid being sued.