Movie companies have lost a third attempt to unmask Reddit users who posted comments discussing piracy. In an order on Wednesday, the US District Court for the Northern District of California rejected movie copyright holders’ demand for seven years’ worth of “IP address log information” on six Reddit users.
In a motion to compel that was filed last month, movie companies Voltage Holdings and Screen Media Ventures argued that “Reddit users do not have a recognized privacy interest in their IP addresses.” But in Wednesday’s ruling, US Magistrate Judge Thomas Hixson said, “The Court finds no reason to believe provision of an IP address is not unmasking subject to First Amendment scrutiny.”
Voltage Holdings and Screen Media Ventures previously sued the Internet service provider Frontier Communications, alleging that it is liable for its users’ copyright infringement. Seeking evidence for that case, the movie companies subpoenaed Reddit in an attempt to prove that Frontier has no meaningful policy for terminating repeat copyright infringers and that this lack of enforcement drew customers to Frontier’s service.
“Reddit argues the Court should deny the motion because it is an unmasking subpoena, targeting a potential witness rather than a potential defendant, and is therefore subjected to First Amendment scrutiny,” Hixson’s order noted. Reddit also argued that the evidence sought by movie companies can be obtained instead from Frontier and from Frontier subscribers.
Hixson’s order, which was previously reported by Torrent Freak, said that courts use a “higher standard for unmasking a non-party witness” than for potential defendants because “litigation can often continue without interfering with a non-party witness’s First Amendment right to anonymity.”
Reddit can protect First Amendment rights of users
The ruling is similar to previous ones in which the same court denied movie-industry attempts to unmask Reddit users. The fact that movie companies only sought IP addresses instead of names this time around wasn’t enough to sway the court.
The previous cases are being called Reddit I and Reddit II. Voltage Holdings was one of the copyright holders involved in Reddit I, while both Voltage Holdings and Screen Media Ventures were involved in Reddit II.
Hixson referred to the prior cases in this week’s ruling, saying the third is similar in part because the “court adjudicating the copyright litigation has already ruled [the movie companies] can obtain identifying information from Frontier for IP addresses known to have pirated using Frontier’s network.” As in the previous cases, the movie companies “cannot show that the information they seek here is unavailable from other sources,” Hixson wrote.
Voltage Holdings and Screen Media Ventures cited Reddit posts in which users say that Frontier didn’t terminate their Internet service despite sending many copyright infringement notices about torrent downloads. One of the users wrote, “I got a total of 44 emails from frontier about downloading torrents and that it could terminate service. They haven’t yet. And I kinda feel like if they didn’t do it after 44 emails. That they won’t… .”
The movie companies argued that getting these Reddit users’ IP addresses is relevant and proportional to the needs of the case because the comments support the allegation “that the ability to pirate content efficiently without any consequences is a draw for becoming a Frontier subscriber… and that Frontier does not have an effective policy for terminating repeat infringers.”
But Reddit has the right to refuse to provide that information, Hixson decided. “The Ninth Circuit has recognized that Internet platforms can assert the First Amendment rights of their users, based on the close relationship between the platform and its users and the ‘genuine obstacles’ users face in asserting their rights to anonymity,” Hixson wrote.