A district court judge ruled recently that an IP address, on its own, is not enough to determine a person's identity, throwing a wrench in the copyright infringement claims brought by pornographic film producers in four related mass BitTorrent lawsuits, which involved more than 80 John Doe defendants accused of illegally downloading different pornographic films. In re: BitTorrent Adult Film Copyright Infringement Cases, 2012 WL 1570765(E.D.N.Y. May 1, 2012).

The plaintiffs, K-Beech, Inc., Malibu Media, LLC, and Patrick Collins, Inc, claimed that individuals were illegally downloading their copyrighted works and sought to identify the alleged downloaders in order to bring legal action against them. Such suits have become widespread in the U.S. since mid-2010, and have involved more than 100,000 alleged downloaders, many of whom may have been wrongfully accused.

The plaintiffs filed nearly identical complaints in the four cases, alleging that defendants "acted in concert with each other" to download and share copyright-protected works using file-sharing software. The complaints maintained that the true identity of a defendant could be sufficiently demonstrated using his/her IP address, claiming "[t]he ISP to which each Defendant subscribes can correlate the Defendant's IP address to the Defendant's true identity." The plaintiffs thus sought to subpoena Internet Service Providers (ISP) for further identifying information, including the names, addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers of the numerous defendants.

The court held that an IP address merely identifies a location at which multiple internet-connected devices may be located. While an IP address is associated with a specific ISP subscriber, it is not sufficient evidence that he/she illegally downloaded the copyrighted material. Importantly, the judge stated that, "It is no more likely that the subscriber to an IP address carried out a particular computer function — here the purported illegal downloading of a single pornographic film — than to say an individual who pays the telephone bill made a specific phone call."

Referencing the increasing popularity of wireless routers, many of which support multiple internet-connected devices, the court noted that the alleged download could have been performed by a family member, friend, or neighbor of the subscriber. Even if the network had been secured, it is possible that a passerby could have accessed the Internet using the subscriber's IP address. Citing the myriad possibilities surrounding the identity of the supposed downloader and the unlikelihood of determining his or her true identity, the court recommended to the federal district court judges that the cases be dismissed, calling the mass BitTorrent lawsuits a "waste of judicial resources."

Protecting the privacy of their users is of paramount importance to most ISPs and online service providers, so this decision is good news for those companies who receive requests for contact information for users of their services.