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Copyright troll Prenda refuses to explain legal strategy

Principals invoke Fifth Amendment right to silence

Notorious copyright troll Prenda Law was seemingly dealt a fatal blow on Tuesday, when the company's top attorneys invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid answering questions from a federal judge.

US District Judge Otis Wright II of the Central District of California had summoned the Prenda principals to appear in his court to explain the firm's legal practices – something the attorneys were apparently unprepared to do.

On Tuesday, four Prenda lawyers and one paralegal each "pleaded the Fifth" in a hearing that lasted no longer than 12 minutes, according to a report by Ken White of the law blog Popehat.

Prenda came to prominence as a "porn troll", filing lawsuits against internet subscribers whom it alleged had downloaded copyrighted X-rated movies. The accused would typically be asked to pay a few thousand dollars to settle the matter – the implication being that if they didn't pay up, Prenda would sue them for a much larger sum and they would be outed before world+dog as smut-watchers.

While Prenda certainly isn't the first company to use such tactics, however, it may have been the most creative. Over the course of multiple hearings over the past several months, the firm was revealed to have employed various questionable practices, some of which may have violated the law.

"It should be clear this court's focus has shifted dramatically from litigation of intellectual property rights to attorney misconduct – such misconduct as brings discredit to the profession," Judge Wright said during Tuesday's hearing.

In an earlier hearing, Judge Wright had voiced his belief that the "clients" Prenda claimed to represent were actually shell companies created by Prenda itself, meaning the firm was really suing people for its own enrichment.

"The only entities getting funds are law firms," Judge Wright declared, noting that Prenda's so-called clients had never so much as filed tax returns, because they had no income.

Prenda has even been accused of stealing the identity of a Minnesota man, Alan Cooper, to use as a fictitious officer who had legal signing authority for various of Prenda's shell companies.

Prenda's principals refused to answer questions about any of these matters on Tuesday, instead invoking their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent – a move that suggests that their answers to Judge Wright's questions might potentially expose them to criminal prosecution.

Judge Wright – whom White described in a Twitter post as being "incandescently angry" – ended the hearing swiftly, snapping, "We're done" as he left the bench.

Doubtless this won't be the end of the matter for Prenda, however. As White points out, Judge Wright has a variety of avenues he can pursue if he believes Prenda has defrauded the courts, ranging from referring the issue to state bar associations to finding the Prenda lawyers in contempt of court.

But no matter what happens next, this surely spells the end of Prenda's days as a copyright troll. Although a Fifth Amendment plea cannot be used as evidence in a criminal trial, it can often be cited in a civil one. Having essentially admitted in open court that its prosecution strategy might have been illegal, Prenda will very likely see its civil cases against accused porn downloaders swiftly begin to unravel, and courts in other jurisdictions may open inquiries of their own.

Judge Wright is expected to issue an order on the matter and potentially initiate punitive measures against Prenda in the coming days. ®

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