To his clients, Paul Duffy is a defender of intellectual property rights, protecting creators from the perils of Internet lawlessness. To Internet freedom advocates, Duffy and his Chicago-based firm, Prenda Law, are scam artists, "copyright trolls" who seek easy profits through frivolous lawsuits that target common Internet users. These advocates, such as the bloggers on FightCopyrightTrolls.com and DieTrollDie.com, are frank with their assessments, describing Prenda's work with words like "criminal" and "fraud" and "extortion."
So, late last month, Duffy began an offensive against that other pillar of Internet indulgence: the hyperbolic, one-sided rhetorical blitzkrieg. Duffy filed a defamation suit against the anonymous bloggers and commenters behind FightCopyrightTrolls.com and DieTrollDie.com, accusing the sites of publishing "volumes of ... false statements" about Prenda, whose website URL is WeFightPiracy.com.
Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the San Francisco nonprofit focused on defending digital rights, stepped in to represent the bloggers.
"These lawsuits are a blatant attempt to abuse the legal process to punish critics," EFF attorney Mitch Stoltz said in a statement.
The EFF calls Prenda a "copyright troll law firm," which tries "to make money by suing Internet users under various copyright laws. Their tactics include targeting large groups of anonymous 'John Doe' defendants for downloading files on BitTorrent, seeking their identities, and exploiting the massive damages in copyright law in order to pressure defendants into settling quickly."
The two websites the group is defending have used more colorful terms to describe the law firm. Prenda's complaint, which has reached federal court in Illinois, lists some of those descriptions (un-sic'd):
"Would be a great idea to make a comprehensive list of all scams and BS pretenda has perpetrated and make it accessible for Does and lawyers... who may be unfamiliar with prendas BS and don't have time or the means to educate themselves about the frauds."
"This section [of a Prenda court filing] is truly a masterpiece of equine excrement, which even a failing law school student would think twice before submitting for a grade."
"Would be nice though if [an attorney performing work for Plaintiff] finally grew a brain and decided to cut his losses and quit the scam and dis-associate himself from Prenda."
"Not that Prenda really cares about possible defendant guilt or innocence. They only want to generate settlements and the possibility of innocent parties only messes up their business model. In their eyes, all the defendants are guilty."
"I got to give it to the sneaky minds at Prenda Law."
"Yet one more reason why these efforts at extortion will never see the inside of a courtroom."
"Prenda's fraudulent activity continues unabated: new harassing calls, ransom letters, etc."
"Keep it up boys, just more evidence to support the abuse of process and harassment claims."
"This is the same psychosis that drives people like Bundy and Dahmer ... These men have ... the mentality of Ted Bundy."
Other lines call Prenda, alternatively: "cockroaches," "criminal organization," "crooks," "assclowns," "fraudsters," "a bunch of bumbling idiots," "a cast of idiots," "proficient in Douchebaggery," "Criminal Psychopaths," and "the kind of people who would rob their families blind if it suited their ambitions," among others. In other words, your basic Internet mortars.
Duffy calls the attacks against him on the sites "libelous and slanderous." Paul Godfread, a lawyer from Minnesota, and Alan Cooper, a client of Godfread, are the only two defendants specifically named in the lawsuit. the complaint calls them "participant[s] in the community of anonymous Internet posters who have defamed and committed other tortious acts against" Prenda. The suit also lists ten "John Does" as defendants, "individuals whose actual names are unknown to Plaintiff. Instead, they are known to Plaintiff only by the childish and unsophisticated-- yet often exceedingly angry-- pseudonyms they hide behind." Duffy recently filed a subpoena demanding that Automattic Inc., which owns the Wordpress blogging platform, provide the IP addresses of everyone who has visited theFightCopyrightTrolls.com and DieTrollDie.com. The company refused, labeling the subpoena "legally deficient and objectionable."
The EFF has, so far, defended the sties from a freedom-of-speech perspective. "Critics of the copyright troll business model have the right to speak anonymously without their identities being exposed to the trolls," attorney Kurt Opsahlsaid in the organization's statement. "These sweeping subpoenas create a chilling effect among those who have spoken out against Prenda."
But beyond the First Amendment debate may lie the sort of legal battle that would be even more entertaining to follow. The foundation of a defamation case, of course, is showing that the objectionable statements are actually untrue. Which means that, for the bloggers, the case essentially offers a platform on which to legally defend the validity of their strongly-held, strongly-expressed belief that Prenda's work amounts to criminal activity.