The Pirate Hunter

Before you even think about illegally downloading Dallas Buyers Club, think about Carl Crowell.

DALLAS STEALERS CLUB: Carl Crowell (above) sues people who illegally share movies like Dallas Buyers Club (below). "I only have so much time, and I try to go after the most egregious parties," Crowell says. "Do it long enough and I'll get to you, so stop."

Charles Castle's first instinct was to ignore the letter when it arrived at his Eugene home. The two pages were mostly legalese and technical jargon, and said he was being sued for theft—specifically, for downloading a copy of an obscure American-Romanian drama called The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman.

Castle, 34, had heard of cases like this, in which so-called "copyright troll" lawyers send letters to hundreds of people, hoping to make fast cash via a quick out-of-court settlement with the few who reply.

He'd heard the best course of action was to ignore such letters. So that's what Castle did.

But the letters kept coming.

"He contacted me once per day until I responded," Castle says.

Castle was in the cross hairs of Carl Crowell, a one-man police force for Hollywood studios seeking to protect the value of their movies. He's waging a battle against a widespread belief many Internet users hold: that content should be free, regardless of who produced it or under what conditions.

Voltage Pictures
Dallas Buyers Club

He's hardly the only lawyer chasing Internet pirates for cash. But he stands out for a few key reasons.

He works on behalf of a handful of small to midsized mainstream movie studios, while copyright trolls generally target people who download porn. He doesn't take a mailing-list approach, instead taking careful aim at the worst offenders. Finally, and perhaps most notably: Crowell tends to win.

"The media calls what I do a scam, a fraud. There are stories online that tell people the worst thing you can do is respond," Crowell says, "but it's not a problem that's going to go away by being ignored."

In the past three years, Crowell has won nearly 80 cases for his six client studios, with many more pending. Although there are a few other lawyers working on retainer for midsized studios elsewhere in the country, Crowell and other local lawyers say he's the only one in Oregon.

Yet Crowell has never taken one of these copyright lawsuits to trial. Instead, he's won when his targets agreed to pay a settlement—typically $7,500.

Critics question whether Crowell's tactics are effective at preventing theft.

Kevin Bons, a Eugene lawyer who has been on the opposite side of one of Crowell's cases, says he doubts the individual approach will work as intended. He says most of those involved in illegal downloading—also called "torrenting"—have no money.

"In my experience, the majority of torrenting is done by teens and people under 25, and that's a population segment that usually has no ability to pay," Bons says. "Crowell's targets are folks who have the ability to reach a settlement, so that strategy has no chance at stopping large-scale online piracy."

Crowell targets heavy users of software called BitTorrent, which downloads large files quickly. It does so by reassembling small pieces grabbed from many other computers simultaneously, allowing users to search and download content without paying the owner.

Crowell says pursuing the biggest offenders reduces piracy in two ways. First, unplugging the most prolific pirates decreases the effectiveness of BitTorrent, which relies on many people having copies of the movie ready to share. Secondly, it acts as a deterrent against future piracy.

"If you just download and don't upload, you don't cross my radar," he says. "I'm interested in persistent involvement over several months."

Crowell says the U.S. economy loses $70 billion each year to online piracy, although official estimates are harder to pin down.

"The BitTorrent economy is destroying the middle class in the movie industry," Crowell says. "Big studios will continue to survive—they can capitalize on marketing and theater revenue."

Crowell says he doesn't see pirates as the real villains. His enemy is the BitTorrent infrastructure that enables the theft of content, as well as the behind-the-scenes individuals who profit from the theft by selling ads on torrent-listing websites like the Pirate Bay.

"Torrenting sites make millions through advertising," he says. "They're like chop shops—they sell $20 million of content for $1 million. $19 million evaporates."

But the global nature of the Internet keeps those sites and their hosts out of Crowell's reach. So Crowell and his client studios are trying to dismantle the system from the other end, by stopping individual users.

"People used to litter as a matter of course. Now we want to be responsible," he says. "That's what's happening now in our online environment. Maybe in five years, you'll see kids saying, 'Wait, that's stealing.'"

Crowell, who has been practicing law in Salem for 15 years, had taken Internet-related cases in the past but got started on movie piracy in 2013, when Voltage Pictures hired him.

He says he gets more requests to take such cases than he can handle.

Like all piracy lawyers, he starts with raw data. A torrent file lists the unique IP addresses of each the connected computers, which are publicly visible to anyone using BitTorrent—something Crowell says most people don't understand.

"There is no anonymity online," he says. "If you want to pirate content, you have to do so publicly."

The studios buy that data in bulk from a service that scrapes the lists from popular torrents and narrows it down by location. Crowell then begins the slow process of identifying the most prolific torrenters and compiling a list of all their downloads.

When the record is complete, Crowell will subpoena the pirate's Internet service provider to get the address holder's name. The provider usually also sends the person a warning letter. If the person doesn't stop, then Crowell will move in with a copyright complaint.

It can take up to 90 days to determine a subscriber's name, plus more time to verify whether the subscriber is the pirate, so Crowell works on several cases at once.

When Crowell files a claim in U.S. District Court, he asks for statutory damages plus his own legal costs. If the target admits to Crowell that they pirated the content, that's where it stops—along with a legal agreement to stop using BitTorrent. But people often deny guilt or blame others, such as a visitor stealing the user's Wi-Fi.

Crowell's demands start to increase if a person continues to deny their torrenting activity despite contradictory evidence. So far, every case has eventually ended in a settlement, but Crowell says he doesn't move forward unless he's confident he can win in court.

"Think of it as a police car chase," Crowell says. "When they get you, you can't go back and just take the speeding ticket."

Crowell's legal opponents express grudging respect for him.

"My sense of Carl is, he doesn't want a payment unless the infringement actually occurred," says Lake Perriguey, an attorney for several defendants Crowell pursued. "He's not interested in money, primarily."

Others view him as more of a double-edged sword.

"Every case is a one-off case, which makes it tougher on both sides," says Seattle lawyer Benjamin Justus, another frequent opponent. "He's fair but tends to drive sort of a hard bargain."

Crowell and Castle eventually reached a settlement of $4,500.

Castle's not happy about what amounts to a very expensive movie ticket, and says he still thinks of Crowell as a copyright troll.

Crowell says people like Castle don't like to be held accountable.

“We come up with derogatory names for any figure of authority we disagree with,” he says. “At the end of the day, he was stealing my client’s content.” 

WWeek 2015

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