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A Copyright Lawyer Demands That People Suspected of Movie Piracy Hand Him Their Computer Hard Drives

He's getting some pushback.

Bill Sheldon mostly uses his personal computer, a Hewlett-Packard Envy laptop, to watch how-to videos for car repairs so he can make an extra buck now and then by fixing a neighbor's radiator.

So Sheldon, a 55-year-old Portlander, was surprised in early April when he was sued for copyright infringement for allegedly using BitTorrent software to illegally download a movie called Mechanic: Resurrection—a Jason Statham flick he says he'd never heard of before seeing the title on the court papers.

He soon received an even bigger surprise. On April 28, a second letter arrived, asking Sheldon to hand over his computer's hard drive for testing.

"I'd never even heard of BitTorrent," says Sheldon. "I was afraid to look it up on my computer. I didn't even want that word on there."

It was the latest aggressive tactic from controversial Salem-based copyright infringement lawyer Carl Crowell, who has made a career of chasing down even the smallest internet pirates.

For more than five years, Crowell has been the go-to lawyer for a handful of small and midsize movie studios that sue people who use BitTorrent to upload, share and download content illegally.

His methods have been decried as copyright trolling—a label he vociferously rejects—but his latest tactic goes beyond the simple threat of fines. By demanding people's hard drives, Crowell is asking for access to the most private aspects of their lives and using it as leverage to get them to agree to settlements.

Lake Perriguey, a Portland lawyer, was assigned to represent Sheldon pro bono for three hours. He decided to stay on the case because of the request for Sheldon's hard drive.

"There's no judicial oversight of what [Crowell] can and cannot do with the hard drives," says Perriguey. "There's no order to destroy the data or to keep it safe. He's getting access to people's highly private and personal information, including legally protected health information."

Crowell says he asked for Sheldon's computer only to make sure he had stopped illegally downloading movies.

"I have neither the time nor the interest to review the personal information that might be on a party's computer," Crowell says.

Meanwhile, Crowell himself is now the target of a lawsuit—by a former colleague who now agrees Crowell goes too far.

James S. Davis, a former law school classmate of Crowell's who helped him bring dozens of copyright cases in California, sued Crowell in July for allegedly misleading him about the legitimacy of his cases. His suit alleges Crowell has not done enough to prove the cases have merit or even that his clients own the right to sue for copyright infringement.

Nicholas Ranallo, Davis' attorney, says Crowell's cases use scare tactics to drive defendants into settlements.

"The explicit or implicit threat is that you can go to court and defend yourself, but that's going to cost a lot more than just paying us," Ranallo says. "So you might as well pay us."

Crowell says Davis' lawsuit doesn't have merit. He says no one who has asserted his clients lack the right to sue for copyright infringement has ever won on that claim.

Oregon courts have already taken one step to limit the scope of copyright suits: In 2013, the courts mandated that any copyright infringement case can have only one defendant. Prior to the decision, Crowell filed suits against as many as 615 "John Doe" defendants.

The court also established a pro bono panel of lawyers to represent defendants in copyright infringement cases.

Crowell didn't get his hands on Sheldon's hard drive. He tried to drop the case in late May, saying he believed Sheldon was telling the truth when he allegedly agreed not to download movies.

But when Crowell filed to dismiss the case, he wouldn't agree to pay any attorney's fees. Perriguey says if Crowell cannot prove his case in court, he should face monetary consequences. The case is still pending before a U.S. District Court judge.

"He's like a dog with a bone, he wouldn't let it go," Sheldon says of Crowell.