Film companies lost another attempt to force Reddit to identify anonymous users who discussed piracy. A federal court on Saturday quashed a subpoena demanding users' names and other identifying details, agreeing with Reddit's argument that the film companies' demands violate the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs are 20 producers of popular movies who are trying to prove that Internet service provider Grande is liable for its subscribers' copyright infringement because the ISP allegedly ignores piracy on its network. Reddit isn't directly involved in the copyright case. But the film companies filed a motion to compel Reddit to respond to a subpoena demanding "basic account information including IP address registration and logs from 1/1/2016 to present, name, email address and other account registration information" for six users who wrote comments on Reddit threads in 2011 and 2018.
"The issue is whether that discovery is permissible despite the users' right to speak anonymously under the First Amendment," US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote in her ruling against the film copyright holders. "The court denies the motion because the plaintiffs have not demonstrated a compelling need for the discovery that outweighs the users' First Amendment right to anonymous speech."
This is the second time Beeler ruled against the film companies' attempts to unmask anonymous Reddit users. Beeler, a magistrate judge at US District Court for the Northern District of California, quashed a similar subpoena related to a different set of Reddit users in late April.
The film companies seeking Reddit users' identities include After II Movie LLC, Bodyguard Productions, Hitman 2 Productions, Millennium Funding, Nikola Productions, Rambo V Productions, and Dallas Buyers Club LLC. As Beeler's ruling on Saturday noted, they sought the identities of two users who wrote about torrenting on Grande's network in 2018:
In a 2018 Reddit thread titled "Texas ISP [Grande] slams music biz for trying to turn it into a 'copyright cop,'" user roboweiner says, "I have Grande and torrent a lot. Always thought it was pretty cool of them to not snitch." User SquirtyBottoms said, "[l]ike everyone else I miss Grande and I'm stuck with Spectrum or AT&T in my area. I use Spectrum. Those fuckers have turned my connection off completely on one occasion and would not turn it back on until I agreed to stop pirating media."
The companies also sought identities of four users who commented in a 2011 thread. "I have grande. No issues with torrent or bandwidth caps," one user comment said. Another Reddit user wrote, "I have torrented like a motherfucker all over grande and have never seen anything."
Reddit's filing pointed out that the statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years. The film companies said the statute of limitations is irrelevant to whether the comments can provide evidence in the case against Grande.
First Amendment right to anonymous speech
The First Amendment right to anonymous speech is not absolute, Beeler noted. In some cases, Reddit and other online platform providers have to identify users.
When a court evaluates an unmasking request, it considers whether a subpoena "was issued in good faith and not for any improper purpose," whether "the identifying information is directly and materially relevant" to a core claim or defense, and whether "information sufficient to establish or to disprove that claim or defense is unavailable from any other source," the ruling said.
The film companies claim the user comments demonstrate that "Grande has not implemented a policy to terminate repeat infringers that is sufficient for a safe-harbor affirmative defense under" US copyright law, and that users were drawn to Grande because it allowed pirating, Beeler wrote. The same film companies were able to get identifying information for 118 of Grande's top 125 pirating IP addresses in May but say "they have had limited success communicating with the 118 subscribers that Grande identified," Beeler wrote.
The fact that Grande already provided names of 118 subscribers factored into Beeler's explanation of why she denied the film companies' motion. Beeler wrote:
As with the last subpoena, the plaintiffs have not shown that the identifying information is directly or materially relevant or unavailable from another source. This is a high standard. The plaintiffs already have 118 subscribers' identifying information: they primarily resist serving those subscribers with subpoenas as burdensome and inconsistent with their August expert-disclosure deadline. They are the top pirating IP addresses, and they are from a more recent time period: it is not obvious why subpoenaing even a subset of those addresses would not yield information at least equivalent to, if not better than, information from the six Reddit subscribers. The information may be relevant, but it also is attenuated: it is at best weak evidence about Grande's insufficient policy regarding repeat infringers or its appeal to pirating subscribers.
In their lawsuit against Grande, the film companies have a deadline of August 7 to serve expert reports on the defendant.
Advance Publications, which owns Ars Technica parent Condé Nast, is the largest shareholder in Reddit.