Reddit tells court: Film studios spewed "nonsense" in demand for users' names

Reddit tells court: Film studios spewed
Mar 2023

Reddit is fighting a film-industry attempt to identify users who discussed piracy, telling a federal court that the studios' request for users' real names should be rejected and that one of the studios' arguments is "nonsense."

"Courts have long recognized that the First Amendment protects online anonymity and have established a stringent standard to use in precisely this scenario, where a litigant seeks to unmask users for the purpose of providing evidence in litigation that does not involve those users... Plaintiffs are far from meeting that strict standard here," Reddit said Tuesday in a filing in US District Court for the Northern District of California.

We detailed the film studios' attempt to unmask Reddit users in a story last week. Reddit has no involvement in the lawsuit that triggered the request for users' identities--the studios behind films such as Hellboy, Rambo V: Last Blood, Tesla, and The Hitman's Bodyguard sued cable broadband provider RCN in a different court, alleging that RCN failed to terminate Internet subscribers who illegally downloaded copyrighted movies. (RCN is now known as Astound Broadband after being combined with several other cable ISPs in the same ownership group.)

In an attempt to prove that RCN turned a blind eye to users downloading copyrighted movies, the film studios subpoenaed Reddit seeking identifying information for specific users who commented in piracy-related threads. After Reddit provided information on only one user, calling the other requests a "fishing expedition," the studios filed a motion to compel Reddit to respond to the subpoena.

Reddit: Users didn't even mention RCN

Reddit's new motion said the film studios "cannot overcome the Reddit users' First Amendment rights because the users' posts Plaintiffs have identified as the basis for this subpoena are completely irrelevant to Plaintiffs' lawsuit." Reddit continued:

Four of the seven users at issue do not appear to have ever even mentioned RCN, based on the evidence offered by Plaintiffs. They merely refer to "my provider" or "our ISP." And those references are all made in a discussion about Comcast, not RCN. Plaintiffs' argument that the users are "very likely" referring to RCN should be rejected as speculative. Two of the three remaining users did mention RCN, but were discussing issues (such as their customer service experience) unrelated to copyright infringement or Plaintiffs' allegations. And the final user vaguely mentioned RCN arguably in the context of copyright infringement once nine years ago, well beyond any arguably relevant timeframe for Plaintiffs' allegations.

Reddit further argued that the plaintiffs could get the information elsewhere. "Plaintiffs can obtain evidence about RCN's repeat infringer policies in countless ways that do not involve unmasking anonymous online speakers," Reddit told the court. "Most obviously, Plaintiffs could seek discovery directly from RCN. That would be far more efficient than taking wild guesses about which Reddit users might be RCN customers or might have engaged in copyright infringement at some point in the last decade. And, more importantly, it would not involve setting aside the fundamental First Amendment rights of uninvolved third parties."

The film studios, including Bodyguard Productions and Millennium Media, claimed that the users wouldn't be harmed by having their identities revealed. "Plaintiffs are not seeking to retaliate economically or officially against these subscribers," the film studios' motion argued. "Rather, Plaintiffs just wish to discuss the comments the subscribers made and use their comments as evidence that RCN monitors and controls the conduct of its subscribers, RCN has no meaningful policy for terminating repeat infringers and this lax or no policy was a draw for using RCN's service."

A hearing on the filmmakers' motion is scheduled for March 23.

Thread was about Comcast infringement email

Reddit said the studios' assertion that four users who posted in a Comcast thread are "very likely" RCN customers is an "unsupported opinion" and "simply insufficient to support Plaintiffs' request to infringe upon the users' First Amendment rights."

The February 2022 thread was started by a user "explaining that they had received a copyright infringement email from Comcast and expressing that they were 'kinda worried,'" Reddit wrote. "In the year since, there have been over 240 replies in that discussion. Among those hundreds of comments about Comcast's copyright practices, one mentions RCN."

Reddit said it provided identifying information for that one user to the plaintiffs. "But the remaining four Comcast Users are now being targeted merely because they happened to post in the Comcast Thread, despite the fact that none of the users were responding or referring to any discussion of RCN, and none mention RCN themselves," Reddit wrote.