Legal blackmail: comprehensive look at tactics of copyright bounty-hunters

Earlier this month, a concerted denial of service attack by 4chan members against the UK law firm ACS:Law resulted in the disclosure of an enormous trove of internal emails from the firm. The mail archive was quickly packaged up and distributed online through sites like The Pirate Bay, and analyses of their contents have begun to show up online — for example, UK ISP Sky Broadband was upset to discover that ACS:Law's leak included the personal information of 4,000 of its customers (Sky provided ACS with this information in response to paid requests that ACS made in order to send legal threats to Sky's customers). Sky says that it will no longer provide ACS with customer data.

This is the heart of the matter: ACS:Law is the last firm in the UK that is in the business of sending "legal blackmail" letters to accused copyright infringers, mostly on behalf of the pornography industry (the "legal blackmail" appellation comes directly from a House of Lords debate over ACS's tactics). And ACS is attempting to branch out into the USA, where statutory damages for copyright infringement open the doors to even more money.

The best analysis of the ACS emails to date comes from this long, investigative piece by Ars Technica's Nate Anderson, who assembles the huge corpus of emails into a coherent narrative explaining how ACS operates, with emphasis on the unethical behavior that made it the most hated law firm in the UK. If you only read one story about "anti-piracy" operations, read this one.

The Blackpool municipal government also objected to Crossley's tactics. ACS Law was contacted by Blackpool, which complained that local citizens "have been significantly distressed by your letter and feel compelled to pay. You say that your letters are not demands but compromise agreements, but any bundle of documents sent by a law 'firm' headed with the words 'Letter of claim; Infringement of Copyright' is likely to cause distress and mislead the consumer into making a transactional decision they would not otherwise make… None of the complainants have any recollection of having downloaded the tracks in dispute."

The Blackpool official then notes that under UK law, damages are fixed at "economic loss, either realised or potential." When it comes to music tracks, the loss equals "the approximate market value of the track as a single download–79p. Without further transparency as to the legal costs mentioned above, I would imagine that this would be sufficient to bring the matter to a close."

Indeed, the justice of this remark about damages haunts Crossley. One of his own legal advisors tells him that "establishing damages beyond the value of the gross profit of one copy of the work is problematic." In other words, a few pence for music. The advisor goes on to note that the one court case which would seem to prove the opposite "has, in my opinion, about as much legal force as a Sun newspaper headline regarding the licentious behaviour of a D list celebrity."

The "legal blackmail" business: inside a P2P settlement factory

(Image: Blackmail, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from joshpatten's photostream)