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District of Arizona Rejects Early Discovery to Learn Identities of Many Doe Defendants

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The movie and recording industries often resort to litigation in an effort to combat unauthorized distribution of copyrighted content on peer-to-peer networks.  A federal district court in the District of Arizona has joined an increasing number of courts that reject efforts to group large numbers of unrelated defendants in a single case. 

In Third Degree Films, Inc. v. Does 1-131, No. 12-108-PHX-JAT, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26617 (D. Ariz. Mar. 1, 2012), the Court rejected the attempt by a copyright holder to obtain discovery to learn the identities of 131 defendants joined in a single case.  The plaintiff, who owns the copyright to an unspecified “adult movie,” alleged that 131 computers downloaded the movie through a file-sharing network without paying for it, which violated plaintiff’s copyright.  As alleged in the complaint, these defendants were part of a specific “swarm” of users that downloaded the movie, and the defendants in this case were associated with IP addresses that were traceable to Arizona.  The plaintiff sought leave to issue subpoenas to the Internet service providers associated with these IP addresses in order to learn their true identities. 

As the Court noted, many district courts have faced similar requests for early discovery to learn the identity of alleged infringers grouped in one case.  Some courts dismiss all defendants except for the first-named defendant on the ground of improper joinder, while others defer resolution of this issue and allow the action (and early discovery) to proceed.  In this case, the Court decided to reach the merits of the complaint and determined that the plaintiff had improperly grouped the 131 defendants together.  In particular, the “swarm” of users that downloaded the movie lasted for many months, included users from different states, and potentially implicated different sources.  As a result, it could not be considered part of the same transaction or occurrence, or even the same series of transactions and occurrences. 

To resolve the problem of improper joinder of unrelated defendants, the Court dismissed all defendants from the case without prejudice except for the first-named defendant.  In making this decision, the Court considered the practical difficulties in allowing a case with 131 different defendants to proceed, many of whom would have unrelated defenses and would likely be representing themselves.  In addition, as the Court explained, it would have to undertake separate trials for each of the defendants to avoid potential prejudice to unrelated defendants.

Having dismissed all but a single defendant, the Court allowed discovery to proceed to allow the plaintiff to discover the identity of the remaining defendant.  The Court noted that some courts deny this type of discovery request because the person associated with the IP address may not necessarily be the person who downloaded the copyrighted movie, but that the plaintiff had no other means to determine the identity of the alleged infringer.