California judge ratchets pressure on attorneys in porn piracy cases

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2013 - 7:48 PM

A federal judge in California demands answers from the legal team over use of lawsuits and its “gamesmanship.”

 

A Minnesota lawyer and several associates who have been suing suspected porn pirates nationwide for copyright infringement have one more chance to convince a skeptical federal judge in California that their lawsuits were legitimate or face possible fines or jail.

They’d better arrive prepared.

U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright said in an order Thursday that their earlier effort to avoid his courtroom “exemplifies gamesmanship.” Wright commanded four lawyers, a paralegal, a computer technician and the CEO of the entities that claim ownership of the copyrighted pornography to appear in his Los Angeles courtroom on March 29 and explain why they shouldn’t be sanctioned “for defrauding the court.”

The lawsuits at issue involve the use of file-sharing programs such as BitTorrent to download copyrighted movies. Attorneys for the copyright holders seek the court’s help to identify thousands of subscribers linked to the computers or wireless routers used to download. Then lawyers send those users a settlement demand warning that violations can result in penalties of up to $150,000 if they must go to court, to say nothing of the public embarrassment. The practice is known as “copyright trolling.”

Several defense attorneys have accused Minneapolis lawyer Paul Hansmeier, his former University of Minnesota law school classmate John L. Steele and others of using sham offshore companies as plaintiffs in hundreds of lawsuits.

Wright had ordered Hansmeier, Steele and their associates to appear in court Monday, but they filed a last-minute objection challenging his authority over non-California attorneys. All but one — Brett Gibbs of Mill Valley, Calif. — did not show.

More questions raised

Wright said the testimony at the hearing raised additional questions concerning a Minnesota law firm called Steele Hansmeier, its successor, Prenda Law of Chicago, and several offshore entities related to the lawsuits.

Wright’s new order applies to Hansmeier; Steele, who practices law in Illinois and lives in Florida; Paul Duffy, the principal of Prenda Law; Angela Van Den Hemel, a Minneapolis paralegal; Mark Lutz, a Nevada resident presented as the CEO of several West Indies entities that filed the lawsuits, and Peter Hansemeier, Paul’s brother, who works in Minneapolis for an offshore computer forensics firm.

Wright also ordered the appearance of Alan Cooper of plaintiff AF Holdings LLC. But it’s questionable that such a person exists.

Steele’s former cabin caretaker, Alan Cooper of Isle, Minn., appeared at Monday’s hearing and denied knowing anything about AF Holdings. He alleged in a recent suit that his identity was used in the litigation without his consent, and that his signatures on court documents are forgeries.

List of possible sanctions

Wright rejected the challenge to his authority. He said those who appear at the next hearing should be prepared to argue why they should not be sanctioned for failing to appear this week, as well as for their participation, direction and execution of allegedly improper acts, and for failing to fully inform the court about those who have a financial interest in the lawsuits.

He said Steele and Paul Hansmeier also face possible sanctions for not informing him of their behind-the-scenes involvement as “senior attorneys” in the California cases.

Messages seeking comment from Steele, Hansmeier and Duffy went unanswered Thursday. In earlier interviews. Steele and Hansmeier declined to comment on pending cases. In general, they denied any wrongdoing and attributed criticism to conspiracy theories spread by defendants and their attorneys.

 

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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