Starring Val Kilmer and Christopher Walken, the forgettable mob drama Kill the Irishman grossed $1.2 million in theaters when it was released this past June, but if Richard and Matthew Clapham have their way, the film might end up being quite profitable despite its mediocre showing at the box office. The New Zealand-born brothers are allegedly expanding their online porn empire to include copyright lawsuits that shame anonymous Internet surfers into forking over cash settlements, and Kill the Irishman is reportedly the guinea pig they're using to test the lucrative scheme's legality in Australia.
The attorneys connect to a BitTorrent swarm collect the IP addresses of everyone sharing a specific movie. Then they file a lawsuit in federal court against thousands of anonymous "John Does," demanding that Comcast and other Internet Service Providers release the names and mailing addresses of customers that correspond to the infringing IP addresses. Those people eventually receive threatening letters demanding settlements of a few thousand dollars. Since the payoff is often significantly less than it costs to fight back in court -- and since many of the films involved have embarrassing titles like Tokyo Cougar Creampies -- most recipients pay up whether they're guilty or not. Film studios and their lawyers see it as a way to recoup the millions they lose each year to digital pirates. Scholars and civil-liberties organizations view it as a form of legal blackmail.
Courts in Britain and a handful of other European nations have also had rashes of so-called "copyright trolling" lawsuits in recent years, but the strategy has yet to make its way to the land down under. At least until the Claphams came along.
Earlier this month, Melbourne newspaper The Age reported that the brothers have formed a company called Media Rights Group and amassed a list of 9,000 IP addresses that pirated Kill the Irishman. Here's why that's significant:
The Age has traced the lineage of Movie Rights Group and Lightning Entertainment, and the connections of the Clapham brothers to a vast international web of pornographic websites, and concluded that there is a strong chance this action is in fact a stalking horse for a wider campaign against copyright breaches on behalf of the porn industry.
The brothers, who reside in a lavish mansion on Australia's Gold Coast, reportedly made their fortune by creating ultra-sleazy websites like "Passed Out Pussy." According to The Age, the now-defunct site's tagline was "young girls drunk or drugged before they are brutally abused!!''
Lightning Entertainment, the company that holds the distribution rights to Kill the Irishman, also rakes in millions of dollars in pay-per-view porn. That led Age reporter Karl Quinn to suspect that the Claphams' might have ulterior motives with their litigation. Quinn credits Seattle Weekly's previous reporting on John Doe BitTorrent suits in the U.S. for helping him piece together the connections between the Claphams, Kill the Irishman, and the porn studios.
"After I read your piece I figured it was only a matter of time before something similar was tried here," Quinn says. "[Kill the Irishman] was a mainstream drama, but I thought I spotted evidence of a John Doe action in the making. I spent the day following the threads, and by the end of the weekend I was able to join all the dots."
Whether the John Doe scheme is viable in Australia remains to be seen. There, the primary representative of the film and television industry in such matters is the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, which, according to Quinn, "has generally preferred to take an educational approach around the cost of piracy rather than to pursue litigation." The organization has distanced itself from the Claphams and their Media Rights Group, but also stated "that content owners have the legal authority to exercise their rights to prevent online copyright infringement.''