The law firm Davenport Lyons, best known online for accusing people of illegally filesharing on behalf of video games companies and threatening to take them to court if they don't pay hundreds of pounds, has now begun doing the same for producers of hardcore gay porn. It denied any plans to work for "adult entertainment" rights holders less than three months ago.
It emerged on the peer-to-peer discussion forum Slyck.com and UK gay site Outeverywhere.com on Monday that internet users have begun receiving letters alleging they infringed the copyright on a film called Army Fuckers.
A Slyck.com user accused of sharing the movie, which is set in World War Two Czechoslovakia and features "14 young muscled soldiers, Gestapo officers and farm hands", wrote on Monday: "I don't have to mention that I am straight, do I? And I did not download that bloody film!!"
It's known that the methods to detect internet users who have participated in copyright-infringing BitTorrent swarms are flawed. Critics of the companies that carry out the trawls say those accused could easily cite an open Wi-Fi network as a defence if a case ever made it to a full civil hearing.
Michael Coyle, a solicitor at Lawdit, which is acting for seventy people who believe they have been falsely accused of video game copyright infringement, said he had been contacted by people worried by new accusations. "We've had lots of calls in the last 48 hours," he told The Register, "a lady in her seventies has been in touch to say she's been accused of filesharing gay porn!"
Coyle said internet users targeted by Davenport Lyons should contact a solicitor. "The message is don't panic and don't ignore it either," he said, noting that the strength of Davenport Lyons' accusations has never been tested in court. "The IP address is not enough," he added.
Davenport Lyons' Army Fuckers letter* to an Outeverywhere.com user demanded he pay £505.21 or face court action. "This relates to my [boyfriend] downloading porn using BitTorrent," he wrote. "The letter doesn't look like a scam and includes details of the IP address and the court order demanding release of data from our internet service provider (BT)."
Work for pornography clients represents a further aggressive push into anti-piracy work for Davenport Lyons. Earlier this year the firm launched a blitz to publicize the fact it was awarded £16,000 damages when a woman it accused of downloading the video game Dream Pinball 3D was found in default. She had ignored Davenport Lyons' threatening letters and didn't defend herself in court. "Hopefully people will think twice if they risk being taken to court," Davenport Lyons partner Roger Billens told The Times, urging the hundreds of others his firm had alleged shared the game to pay up.
About the same time as it was using the media to warn its targets to pay up, Davenport Lyons specifically denied it would act for porn companies to The Register. Tips from readers had suggested it was acting for the German BitTorrent investigations firm DigiProtect, which this document (pdf) showed had been employed by Californian porn film movie producers.
In response to our questions, Davenport Lyons' public relations firm Bell Pottinger sent us this statement on August 26: "Davenport Lyons has received instructions from DigiProtect to obtain disclosure orders on its behalf, given the firm's expertise in this area, but presently has no intention to take action against alleged infringers on behalf of companies in the field of adult entertainment."
In light of this week's developments, it is very likely that the process that led to these accusations of porn copyright infringement began before August 26. A High Court order obtained by Davenport Lyons for DigiProtect on June 30, which may or may not refer to IP addresses detected sharing Army Fuckers, gave BT three months to release its customers' details. Assuming a similar timescale, even if Davenport Lyons had changed its plans on pornography on August 27 and somehow obtained a court order the same day, it would not have been able to contact its targets until well into December.
Information about sexuality is given extra protection under the Data Protection Act. Sending people demands for money with the threat of branding them a downloader of hardcore gay porn in open court raises fundamental ethical worries, said Simon Davies of Privacy International.
"This is appalling, it breaches a number of fundamental human rights. They risk bringing the law into disrepute - just because lawyers can do something it doesn't mean that they should," he said, adding that Davenport Lyons' scheme reminded him of scams in the early days of the web when unscrupulous porn companies could go unchallenged by including lurid details of material allegedly accessed on arbitrary bills.
Commenting on the prospect of a legal challenge to Davenport Lyons' techniques, Davies said: "It could serve as a test case and become a political touch point because the the information is so sensitive."
We asked Bell Pottinger for comment on Davenport Lyons' new business, and the statement it gave in August, but it had not responded at time of publication. ®