When it comes to intellectual property protection, companies can get incredibly protective. This seems to be even more so the case when it comes to media companies. It could be because their products can so easily be duplicated and shared online through services like BitTorrent, that they feel the need to go further than other industries. This week, we have a case of a film studio requesting user data from Reddit about an unrelated case involving an ISP.
About the case
The lawsuit alleges that RCN did not do enough to prevent known piracy on their network. The suit comes from the film studio behind films such as Hellboy and The Hitman's Bodyguard. The studio says that RCN, dating back as far as 2016, was aware of illegal user activity and did not act with enough force to stop the practice. RCN no longer exists under that name and is now known as Astound Broadband - a combination of several broadband services under a single umbrella.
As part of the company's discovery phase, the studio contacted Reddit and demanded that they turn over user data, including their real names and identities, to them. The users in question were involved in a discussion from 2022 in which another user posted about getting an email from Comcast citing suspected piracy on their account and the user was worried and looking for advice.
Comcast is not the owner of RCN or Astound Broadband, and the film studio was not mentioned. However, the studio claims that the users involved in the conversation, some of whom state they are with another provider, are likely subscribers of RCN and could hold potentially important information about the practices. This belief is because the conversation involved discussion about how other providers behave and whether they are lax or not on this topic.
Reddit believes the request is "nonsense"
The company has flatly denied the request in regard to nine users. Reddit has said that the First Amendment applies to the internet and that the Supreme Court has held more than once that it also protects users' identities online. The request, therefore, is an illegal invasion of privacy that violates the Constitution. This denial is in addition to turning over information on a user who flatly stated they were with RCN and that the company specifically had lax policies about piracy.
The studio, however, has very dubious claims as to why the company should unmask these users. They claim that some of the users are likely customers of RCN (though have no evidence to back up that claim), some were but discussed customer service issues, and one made reference nearly a decade ago. Reddit said of the request,
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.
It's definitely a high bar to try and get over for the Plaintiff. Compelling an online company to unmask a user has a lot of hurdles on its own, even if you have significant evidence in your favor. However, to be so completely out of line asking for data about people that clearly are not involved in the case in question is likely to end in heartbreak for the studio in court.