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Utahns among thousands accused of illegal downloads

Published: Saturday, April 30 2011 11:05 p.m. MDT

WEST VALLEY CITY — A week before her daughter's wedding, Ginger Nelson was notified of a lawsuit for an offense she says she knew nothing about.

"I couldn't believe I was getting it," the West Valley City resident said.

The letter from her Internet service provider, Comcast, notified her that her name, home address and phone number were being subpoenaed by West Coast Productions, an adult film production and distribution company, which was accusing her of illegally downloading one of their films.

"This is just something I didn't need," Nelson said. "It's just taken a lot of my time away from this wonderful celebration that we were going to be having."

Nelson is one of nearly 6,000 defendants included in the lawsuit. At least one other Utah resident, Jim Robinson from Parowan, was also included. The common element in their situations is that neither had secure, encrypted wireless Internet connections and both believe someone downloaded content using their Internet services.

"I do not download movies, especially from a porn place," Nelson said. "I hate pornography. I think it's eating our society up inside."

Nelson has until May 9 to appeal the subpoena, but after researching similar cases online, she said she probably won't.

"West Coast Productions gets the information anyway," Nelson said. "Even if you have a lawyer."

Robinson, on the other hand, filed a motion to quash the subpoena. He argued that because he, like Nelson, had an unsecured wireless network allowing multiple people access to his Internet connection, it would be impossible to find the person actually responsible for the download.

Dunlap, Grubb and Weaver, the Washington, D.C.-based law-firm representing West Coast Productions, has filed a retort to the motion and requested that it be dismissed. A decision is pending.

Dunlap, Grub and Weaver didn't respond to multiple phone calls and emails over a period of weeks requesting comment.

An employee of West Coast Productions, who asked not to be named, said illegal downloads are killing DVD sales.

"I don't know how you would put even a dollar on anything like that," she said. "It's not just us; take a look at Blockbuster."

She said West Coast Productions joined other film companies in hiring Dunlap, Grub and Weaver to go after illegal file sharers. West Coast Productions is kept in the dark about the proceedings until the lawsuits are resolved, she said.

"We're kept out of the loop until we get a check," she said.

Dunlap has filed multiple lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, each one naming hundreds or thousands of "John Does" who have downloaded the same content using a file sharing technology called BitTorrent.

The firm starts by obtaining people's Internet protocol addresses and subpoena their identification and contact information from their Internet service providers.

Once they have the identities of the accused, they send them a letter threatening a judgment of up to $150,000 per downloaded movie — the maximum penalty allowable and a very unlikely judgment, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that champions itself in defending the rights of Internet users. The letter offers a settlement of $1,500 to $2,500.

"That's a carefully calibrated number," said Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director of the foundation. "It's meant to be cheaper than your other options."

Another option is to fly to Washington and hire an attorney, Jeschke said.

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