It was a simple plan: obtain the rights to pornographic films, share copies of them online, then threaten to sue those downloading the skin flicks for copyright infringement unless they paid a $3,000 settlement fee.
Between 2011 and 2014, the scaper earned about $3m for two former Minnesota attorneys, Paul R. Hansmeier and John L. Steele, through front companies like Prenda Law.
It also earned rather lengthy lodging in prison. Hansmeier, 37, who admitted guilt in a plea deal last year, was on Friday this week sentenced to 14 years (168 months) behind bars for his role in the porn-trolling operation.
Hansmeier admitted to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and in so doing avoided 16 other charges.
Steele, who also pleaded guilty, is due to be sentenced next month. According to sentencing guidelines, he could get about 10 years, though he appears to be hoping for less based on his cooperation.
"Paul Hansmeier abandoned his sworn oath to uphold the law and chose instead to use coercion and lies to exploit victims and deceive judges," said United States Attorney Erica MacDonald in a statement. "The sentence he received today is a just consequence for his actions."
As part of his guilty plea, Hansmeier admitted that he and Steele created fictitious business entities to obtain copyrights of pornographic films – buying the rights or actually creating the X-rated movies – and distribute them through file-sharing websites like The Pirate Bay to encourage people to download them.
They would then file copyright lawsuits to obtain personal information about those downloaded their hardcore flicks using subpoenas obtained from courts without any disclosure of their financial interest in the lawsuits.
Having obtained the identity of porno watchers, they would threaten the accused infringers with legal consequences unless they paid the settlement fee, under the presumption that those targeted would prefer to settle than risk exposure through public legal process.
Hansmeier is also required to pay more than $1.5m in restitution and to serve two years of supervised release once he's out of prison. ®