Feeds

Court clips DirecTV piracy suits

'No practical effect'

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday (15 June) that DirecTV cannot sue individuals for merely possessing technology useful for illegally intercepting the company's satellite signal, in the first significant legal victory for critics of DirecTV's aggressive anti-piracy campaign.

A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal law criminalizing possession of wiretap equipment does not allow for civil lawsuits. District courts across the country have ruled both ways on the issue, and Tuesday's decision is the first time a higher court stepped in to settle the question.

Technically the ruling is only binding in the three southern US states covered by the Eleventh Circuit - Alabama, Florida, and Georgia - but DirecTV said that it would stop suing under the wiretap equipment statute nationwide.

The ruling affects only one type of action in the litigation cocktail that DirecTV brings to bear against suspected pirates. In addition to the possession of wiretap equipment charge, each lawsuit typically accuses a defendant of actually using the equipment to steal satellite service, in violation of federal wiretap law and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

"We've never sued anybody based on possession alone," said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer. "We've always asserted that they've used the devices for the purpose for which they're intended, which is to steal our signal... We don't believe the court's ruling will have any practical effect on our litigation activities."

But the decision means that DirecTV will have to convince a jury that a defendant actually used the equipment to pirate the company's signal in any case that comes to trial.

"They will still bring lawsuits, and perhaps just as many," says Jason Schultz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the case opposing DirecTV. "But I think this changes the situation dramatically... You can make a pretty good argument that a purchase record is proof of possession, but making the leap that you actually figured out how to program it and connect it to a satellite receiving system with sufficient technical skills to descramble DirecTV's satellite signals is a whole other level of proof."

DirecTV's end-user campaign is aimed at shutting down and collecting money from larcenous TV watchers who use smart card programmers and other equipment to get free or expanded satellite service. Because there's no way to trace people who are passively receiving DirecTV's signal, the company turned to a strategy of physically raiding equipment sellers that cater to pirates, using the authority of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The company then sends out threatening letters to equipment purchasers on the seized customer lists.

The letters accused the recipients of violating anti-piracy and wiretapping laws, and demanded a cash settlement beginning at $3,500, under threat of litigation. Since last year the company has sent out an estimated 100,000 letters and filed approximately 14,000 lawsuits against over 24,000 people who've ignored them or refused to settle.

DirecTV has faced criticism over the campaign after targeting some innocent techies with perfectly legal uses for the equipment they purchased. The company says the number of non-pirates buying the equipment is minuscule.

On Monday, the day before the Eleventh Circuit ruling, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society announced an agreement with DirecTV aimed at helping innocent targets disentangle from the company's dragnet: DirecTV promised to change its demand letters to explain in detail how innocent recipients can get the company to drop their cases, and to investigate every credible claim of innocence.

Related stories

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
Doctor Who's Flatline: Cool monsters, yes, but utterly limp subplots
We know what the Doctor does, stop going on about it already
Facebook, Apple: LADIES! Why not FREEZE your EGGS? It's on the company!
No biological clockwatching when you work in Silicon Valley
'Cowardly, venomous trolls' threatened with TWO-YEAR sentences for menacing posts
UK government: 'Taking a stand against a baying cyber-mob'
Happiness economics is bollocks. Oh, UK.gov just adopted it? Er ...
Opportunity doesn't knock; it costs us instead
Arab States make play for greater government control of the internet
Nerds told to get lost in last-minute power grab bid at UN meeting
Sysadmin with EBOLA? Gartner's issued advice to debug your biz
Start hoarding cleaning supplies, analyst firm says, and assume your team will scatter
Zippy one-liners, broken promises: Doctor Who on the Orient Express
Series finally hits stride, but Clara's U-turn is baffling
Don't bother telling people if you lose their data, say Euro bods
You read that right – with the proviso that it's encrypted
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
Win a year’s supply of chocolate
There is no techie angle to this competition so we're not going to pretend there is, but everyone loves chocolate so who cares.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.