Exclusive Alexander Hanff had no idea Hollywood was keeping such a close eye on him. Then, last Saturday morning, a movie studio functionary arrived at his door. Hanff, still in his dressing gown and not yet full of coffee, opened the door, only to be served with a lawsuit by Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal City Studios and Warner Bros.
You may have already guessed Hanff's supposed transgression. The movie studios suspect him of running a BitTorrent hub and helping people download copyrighted films via P2P technology. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of American) has gone after numerous BitTorrent hubs on similar charges and managed to shut many of them down. The plot here is a familiar one.
There are, however, a couple of factors that make Hanff's story unique. For one, the US studios served Hanff papers at his home - in England. Secondly, Hanff, 31, owns the DVDR-Core domain name and pays for its server, but he has never actually administered the site. That's done by a group of online friends that Hanff has never met in person. Lastly, Hanff plans to fight the movie studios, making him a rarity among BitTorrent hub owners.
"I am certainly not going to settle for anything that will compromise my integrity or the integrity of our members," Hanff said. "They can bankrupt me. I don't own a house, so they can't take it. I own a few guitars that they can have and an old inkjet printer. It's a waste of their time and of my time."
Hanff argues that BitTorrent hubs should be covered by the same rulings that have made P2P services legal in the US. The hubs don't host actual movie files. They point people to computers where the movies are stored. It's the users and not the hub owners that are directly infringing on the movie studios' copyrights. And with personal files and open source software being moved via BitTorrent technology, there are plenty of substantial non-infringing uses for the hubs.
"Torrent files don't contain any data," Hanff said. "This is a search engine scenario. Why aren't Google, Yahoo or Microsoft getting sued?"
Hanff bought the DVDR-Core domain name close to 18 months ago and then last year purchased a server hosted in California. His online friends then set up a community site for DVD and movie enthusiasts. The site had all the basics such as chat rooms, discussion boards and special "members only" sections. It also happened to have a BitTorrent tracker for finding files - many of them copyrighted works of MPAA members.
In total, the site was actually only up and running for a few months. Hanff shut it down of his own volition in December, after reading about raids on Dutch P2P sites. (Hanff had moved from the California servers to Dutch servers in early December and shut down the site in mid-December).
"The servers were wiped clean by the administrators," Hanff said.
Hanff insists that he has never administered the DVDR-Core servers, unless you count paying for them as administration. Only his online associates - who he has never met and can't even be sure if he knows their real identity - have touched the boxes. Hanff declined to provide contact details for these administrators but said they have not been served with any papers by the movie studios.
The movie studios never sent word that they were concerned about the DVDR-Core site until the lawsuit threat arrived - a fact which really displeases Hanff.
"I never received a complaint, and I took the site down on my own," he said. "Now, three or four months later, I am getting served."
While he was only served last week, the studios filed their lawsuit back on 14 December in the District Court for Northern Illinois. They filed a "John Doe" lawsuit, but the studios were later able to identify Hanff with the help of the server's ISP.
"Though you may currently be located in the United Kingdom, you will be subject to the jurisdiction of the United State federal court by virtue of your engaging in BitTorrent activities through a US Internet Service Provider, among other reasons," the studios said via their lawyers. The lawsuit filed by the movie studios claims DVDR-Core provided links to 1,000 torrents and films such as "Big Fish," "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Stepford Wives." The media mob threaten to seek anywhere from $750 to $150,000 per infringed work.
DVDR-Core never provided Hanff with any extra income. He didn't put ads on the site and used a scant amount of donations to pay for the server. At its peak, the site had about 30,000 registered members.
Hanff has no idea how to respond to the studios from a legal standpoint. The studios have tapped Jenner & Block LLP in Chicago to do their dirty work. The law firm, however, didn't say what it would accept as a settlement or what the movie studios wanted.
On Tuesday, Hanff, an IT trainer by day, plans to ask for legal and possibly even financial help on the DVDR-Core site. A similar strategy was employed recently by another BitTorrent hub - the dubious LokiTorrent.
"Loki kind of ruined it for people like me, but I am going to appeal for legal advice on the web site," he said.
This case proves that the MPAA, like its musical counterpart the RIAA, is intent on making an example out just about anyone. It's prepared to send operatives scurrying about the UK to serve papers on a man who had already shut down a possibly legal site months ago.
The media moguls likely won't get any lucrative pay out of Hanff. All he has are those guitars, a printer and three cats. As it turns out though, that's the type of arsenal our most feared criminals pack these days. ®
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