Time Warner Balks At Subpoenas In Mass Copyright Suits

The biggest headache when suing 10,000 people for copyright infringement? Finding out who they are.

Lawyers from Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) have intervened in a few mass-copyright lawsuits recently, saying they’ve been overwhelmed by the tactics of one Washington, D.C., area law firm, Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver. Since January, lawyers from that firm have sued more than 10,000 “John Does” in nine separate lawsuits, alleging that those users have broken copyright law by sharing movies over BitTorrent sites. The firm has requested names and contact info for all 10,000, a task that falls to ISPs like Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) to carry out.

Time Warner says it’s not set up to deal with tracking down the details on thousands of alleged file-sharers. The internet provider’s subpoena compliance division mainly caters to law-enforcement personnel who need to identify particular internet users in all types of cases, from threats on public officials to money laundering. Time Warner argued that Dunlap lawyers could be delaying the IP lookups cops need to respond to more pressing cases, like suicide threats, child-abduction cases and even terrorist activity. “Any time spent working on Dunlap subpoenas will cause a corresponding delay in responding to law enforcement subpoenas,” the company’s lawyers wrote.

To catch alleged file sharers, law firms hires private investigators who log on to the file-sharing networks to track which IP addresses transfer copyrighted files. Through that process they gather the IP addresses and dates and times of the alleged violators. That information is then turned over to the ISP, which has to convert each IP address into a name, address and phone number.

After Time Warner complained to the court about the Dunlap’s request, the judge overseeing the case limited the lookups to 28 IP addresses per month, which increases the broadband provider’s workload by about 5 percent, since it currently handles an average of 567 lookups per month. This week, Dunlap partner Tom Dunlap asked for an extension to serve all the defendants, saying that at the slow rate Time Warner was producing the names it needed, it would take almost two and a half years to serve all the defendants. In an email to paidContent, Dunlap said “Time Warner has made a great run at obtaining publicity,” adding “I do think they can produce more than they are saying.”

A lawyer who represents several of the John Does, Carey Lening, has objected to Dunlap’s request, saying a long wait to be served with legal papers will unfairly place defendants in legal limbo.

With mass copyright lawsuits one of the litigation trends of 2010, the tension between ISPs and lawyers representing rightsholders could continue to grow. According to the process described by Time Warner in court papers, IP lookups involve efforts at the corporate office as well as work at the local operations center where a particular subscriber is located. TWC did an internal study that it says calculated the cost of each IP lookup at about $45. (Dunlap lawyers are paying $32 per lookup, pursuant to an earlier agreement with TWC.)

In some of Dunlap’s earlier cases, which have smaller data requests, the ISPs have already handed over identifying information for the IP addresses requested. Dunlap said some of those defendants have settled with his client, while others will be named in a separate lawsuit to be filed after Thanksgiving.