In 2003, the theater world was introduced to an adult version of Sesame Street titled “Avenue Q.” If you’re not familiar with the show, don’t worry about it — it really doesn’t matter for today’s story. What does matter is, perhaps, the most famous song from the show, titled “The Internet’s For Porn.” You can watch a performance of the song here and while it doesn’t involve any nudity — well, one of the puppets isn’t wearing clothes, but there’s nothing revealing — the language isn’t really family-friendly). But is it true? Well, probably not. The Internet has a lot of uses that don’t deserve that moniker (e.g., the newsletter you’re reading right now). And yet, there’s definitely a lot of that stuff out there, too.
But one law firm decided there wasn’t quite enough.
For as long as the Internet has been around, people have been downloading content without permission from the copyright holder. Napster, for example, famously went from Internet darling to defunct because of litigation around illegal downloading. That case was, primarily, about music downloads, but the idea is the same for downloading videos, adult or otherwise. If a user downloaded someone else’s copyrighted content, the copyright holder can sue the user and hope to collect some money in return. And more than ten years ago, one law firm — Prenda Law — made this type of litigation the focus of their business. They even registered a website — WeFightPiracy.org — to promote their services. Or so it seemed.
In August of 2013, the Washington Post described Prenda Law’ as “one of the Internet’s most prolific copyright trolls: firms that catch users downloading content from peer-to-peer networks, threaten them with lawsuits and then offer to ‘settle’ for less than the cost of defending a lawsuit.” And, as the Post noted, those settlement offers were particularly effective when it came to adult-themed content; no one wants their name in a lawsuit about that kind of stuff. Prenda’s business, which may have been questionable, was profitable. As long as Prenda could get makers of adult content to hire them as their lawyers, the money would keep flowing.
Unfortunately for Prenda, that business model isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. There’s a lot of adult material out there and matching up the content and the maker is like finding a needle in a haystack. So Prenda made it easier on themselves: they became pornographers. The Washington Post, in another article, quotes the indictment against the law firm’s principles: in order to carry out the scheme, the defendants used sham entities to obtain copyrights to pornographic movies — some of which they filmed themselves — and then uploaded those movies to file-sharing websites in order to lure people to download the movies.” Whenever someone downloaded a Prenda-owned video, Prenda would threaten to sue the downloader. But because Prenda had uploaded the content themselves, there was no actual copyright violation — the whole thing was a sham.
Prenda Law’s dabbling in the adult film industry — well, the fraud that came from that, at least — ended up getting their principals in legal trouble. In 2016, two of the law firm’s leads — John Steele and Paul Hansmeier — pled guilty to mail and wire fraud, as well as money laundering. Steele received a five-year sentence, having cooperated with authorities, while Hansmeier was given 12 years in prison. Neither are allowed to practice law as a result of the conviction, but whether they can still make movies has gone unreported.
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