Columbia Pictures v. Bunnell, Case No. 2:06-cv-01093 (C.D. Cal. December 13, 2007)

In a case that initially garnered notice for the court’s order to preserve server log data temporarily stored in RAM (discussed here), the court has now granted terminating sanctions, entering default judgment against defendants. The court cited numerous examples of obstreperous conduct by defendants, but most importantly, the court found that defendants had engaged in widespread and systematic efforts to destroy evidence and had provided false testimony in an effort to hide the evidence of their destruction.

The plaintiffs are motion picture studios that own copyrights or exclusive reproduction and distribution rights to numerous films and television programs. Defendants are the operators of a website, www.torrentspy.com, that enables users to locate and download dot-torrent files, which they can then use to join a peer-to-peer network that facilitates the copying and distribution of unauthorized copies of plaintiffs’ copyrighted motion pictures and television shows. The complaint alleged that defendants were enabling, inducing, and profiting from the online piracy of plaintiffs’ copyrighted works.

The court found that defendants had responded to the filing of the lawsuit with a plan to delete and modify hundreds of thousands of postings on Torrentspy forums. These efforts included:

  1. One of defendants, a senior manager at Torrentspy, informed its volunteer forum moderators in a private posting: “We need to make sure that these forums stay clear of anything related to piracy. If people talk about piracy or ask about pirated works, then it can be used against us in court. Please make sure to be on watch for those kinds of things and remove them promptly. I’d even recommend using the search engine to find past threads that may hurt us.”
  2. That same defendant approved the creation of a hidden forum, where existing forums would be moved.
  3. Forum postings were modified to replace names of movies.
  4. Two forum threads were removed entirely.
  5. Most piracy related threads were closed and removed from public view.
  6. Directory headings referencing copyrighted works were deleted.
  7. User IP addresses were edited to remove the fourth octet.
  8. The identities of forum moderators were withheld from discovery responses.

The court found that this conduct was willful spoliation. In deciding whether to enter default judgment as a sanction, the court weighed the following factors:

  1. The public’s interest in expeditious resolution of litigation weighed strongly in favor of terminating the case in favor of plaintiffs.
  2. The court’s need to manage its dockets also weighed strongly in favor of terminating the case in favor of plaintiffs. 
  3. The risk of prejudice to the party seeking sanctions such that a rightful decision is not possible also weighed strongly in favor of plaintiffs. A substantial number of items of evidence had been destroyed, and this was highly prejudicial.
  4. The public policy favoring disposition of cases on their merits weighed against the imposition of terminating sanctions.
  5. The availability of lesser sanctions weighed in favor of plaintiffs. Defendants had been subjected to lesser sanctions in the case already. They had violated discovery orders and had been deemed to have waived certain privilege arguments. The court had warned them that more sever sanctions would be imposed if they continued to ignore discovery orders. And they proposed no lesser sanctions at the hearing on this motion.
  6. The court acknowledged that terminating sanctions were particularly harsh and should be imposed only in extraordinary circumstances. They were nonetheless appropriate in this case to punish defendants for their wrongful conduct and to ameliorate the prejudice and harm to plaintiffs.

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