Tracking down pirates and pursuing copyright infringement suits continues to become increasingly more difficult. A federal district court in Iowa recently limited the possibility of mass claims of copyright infringement.

To streamline the process of enforcing their copyrights, copyright holders often go after alleged pirates in “mass joinder” BitTorrent copyright infringement suits. This method is less expensive and more efficient, making it a natural choice for those initiating lawsuits. We’ve even seen that tactic used this past month, as the producers of Dallas Buyers Club, Voltage Pictures, sued dozens of BitTorrent users—all of those possible within the court’s jurisdiction—jointly for copyright infringement.

The Iowa ruling involved five consolidated cases for the movies Killer Joe, The Company You Keep, and Sibling The Movie. Over one-hundred anonymous users were party to these suits. In each of these cases, the plaintiffs alleged a network-based theory of copyright infringement, wherein peers request the same initial “seed” file yet receive different pieces of data (based on the prior users’ downloads), forming a “swarm.”

In review, Judge Stephanie Rose ordered that the cases be severed by defendant as joinder was inappropriate. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,

Persons . . . may be joined in one action as defendants if: (A) any right to relief is asserted against them jointly, severally, or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences.

Under this rule, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that this has been met—here that the “swarm” means the downloads were part of the same transaction. Judge Rose held that they failed and that without more information, the defendants participating in the same swarm should not be considered part of the same series of transactions. The Court also noted that close temporal overlap would help an inference that multiple defendants were engaged in the same series of transactions, but itself would not necessarily be sufficient to establish shared data.

Speaking to these mass joinder cases broadly, the Court held that:

Although each plaintiff has alleged that the defendants in each case were in the same swarm based on the same hash value, participation in a specific swarm is too imprecise a factor absent additional information relating to the alleged copyright infringement to support joinder. Any “pieces” of the work copied or uploaded by any individual Doe may have gone to any other Doe, but may instead have gone to any of the potentially thousands of others who participated in a given swarm and are not in this case.

Going forward, then, alleging that defendants were in the same swarm is insufficient to satisfy civil procedure standards for joinder.

In many districts, where judges have yet to rule on this issue, whether to permit these mass joinder tactics remains entirely a matter of the judge’s discretion. Still, as cases like this one becomes a trend, perhaps legislatures will being to weigh in.

Kristin Bergman