A hot potato: Lawyers litigating a movie piracy case have demanded the identities of nine Reddit users who "might" have discussed piracy on the platform. Reddit turned over some of the information on one (or two) of the users that seemed to be engaging in a "how-to" discussion on bootlegging movies; the plaintiffs want all of the users exposed. Reddit says, "No. We'll see you in court."

On Tuesday, Reddit filed legal paperwork with the Northern District Court of California refusing to unmask users in response to a motion to compel submitted last week. The legal jousting stems from a lawsuit between movie studios and Astound Broadband (formerly RCN) over piracy.

Background: In 2021, Bodyguard Productions, Millennium Media, and several other film studios filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey federal court against RCN. The suit claims that RCN knowingly allowed its customers to illegally download 34 copyrighted movies, including Hellboy, Rambo V: Last Blood, and others.

The studios subpoenaed Reddit to turn over the "IP address registration and logs from 1/1/2016 to present, name, email address, and other account registration information" of nine Redditors. Its general basis for wanting the information was that it believed these users were involved with pirating movies through RCN because they had engaged in discussions on the subject.

After looking into the accounts, Reddit released some information on at least one user but said the rest were unrelated to the lawsuit. Its legal counsel claimed that the subpoena amounted to a "fishing expedition" and that Reddit would not violate users' First Amendment rights without solid evidence of their relevance to the case.

So last week, the plaintiffs filed a motion to compel with a California federal court. On Tuesday, Reddit's legal team responded with an opposition filing. In it, Reddit points out that the posts of the users in question are "completely irrelevant" to the lawsuit under litigation.

"Four of the seven users at issue do not appear to have ever even mentioned RCN, based on the evidence offered by Plaintiffs. They merely refer to 'my provider' or 'our ISP.' And those references are all made in a discussion about Comcast, not RCN. Two of the three remaining users did mention RCN but were discussing issues (such as their customer service experience) unrelated to copyright infringement or Plaintiffs' allegations. And the final user vaguely mentioned RCN arguably in the context of copyright infringement once nine years ago, well beyond any arguably relevant timeframe for Plaintiffs' allegations."

Reddit's legal team also asserted that the plaintiffs' claim that these users were "very likely" referring to RCN is speculative, and the court should reject the argument.

"A single RCN competitor, Comcast, has more than thirty times RCN's market share," Reddit's rebuttal reads. "This context is important to understanding just how absurd it is for Plaintiffs to suggest that any mention of an unnamed ISP in a discussion about Comcast is 'very likely' discussing RCN. It's akin to suggesting that whenever a user mentions a 'car' on a Reddit discussion about Ford, they are 'very likely' talking about an Alfa Romeo."

Reddit also maintains that the information the plaintiffs are fishing for could be more readily and accurately compelled from the defendant, RCN, during discovery. The platform's lawyers claim that the court should not force their client to unmask its customers based on the plaintiffs' "wild guesses about which Reddit users might be RCN customers or might have engaged in copyright infringement at some point in the last decade."

Throughout Reddit's rebuttal, the legal team references several instances of case precedence that set a legal bar the studios fail to meet in their argument. Courts have already affirmed that the First Amendment covers online anonymity. They have also established that litigants cannot unmask users who have nothing to do with the lawsuit unless a "compelling need" outweighs the user's First Amendment rights, citing Rich v. Butowsky and Doe v. 2TheMart.com.

Lawyers for both sides are set to argue the motion in the Northern District Court of California in San Francisco on March 23.

Image credit: Nick Youngson