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Af Holdings LLC v. John Doe

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


May 22, 2012

AF HOLDINGS LLC, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN DOE, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

Presently before the court is plaintiff's ex parte application for leave to conduct expedited discovery ("Application") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1).*fn1

Plaintiff seeks leave of court to serve a discovery subpoena on nonparty Internet Service Provider ("ISP") Bright House Networks, and if necessary serve subpoenas on other "intermediary ISPs," in order to obtain the true identity of defendant "John Doe," who is alleged to have infringed on plaintiff's copyrighted video entitled Popular Demand. (See generally Application, Dkt. No. 7; see also, e.g., Compl. ¶¶ 1, 3-4.). Because plaintiff did not request a hearing, and oral argument would not materially aid the resolution of the pending matter, the court resolves plaintiff's Application on the moving papers and record. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b); E. Dist. Local Rule 230(g). In consideration of the Application, and for the reasons stated below, the court grants plaintiff's Application for leave to conduct limited early discovery and authorizes plaintiff to serve nonparty subpoenas pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 and in accordance with the remainder of this order.

I. BACKGROUND

On April 23, 2012, plaintiff filed complaint against defendant "John Doe," asserting claims of copyright infringement, contributory infringement, and negligence in regards to the copyrighted video entitled Popular Demand ("Video"). (See generally Compl.) Plaintiff alleges that it is the "exclusive holder of the relevant rights" with respect to the Video.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 2.)

Plaintiff alleges that John Doe used an online peer-to-peer media distribution system, a "BitTorrent" file sharing protocol, to download the Video and then distribute the Video to numerous, unidentified third parties.*fn3 (See Compl. ¶¶ 4, 22-24.) Plaintiff alleges that it does not know the actual name of John Doe at this time.*fn4 (Id. ¶ 4.) However, through use of investigators, plaintiff has identified evidence of John Doe's alleged infringing activities, as well as identifying information about John Doe. Plaintiff represents that it has identified John Doe by the unique Internet Protocol ("IP") address "174.134.190.54," which corresponds with plaintiff's observation of John Doe's alleged infringing activities on December 22, 2011, at 6:25 a.m.*fn5 (See id. ¶¶ 22-23; see also Hansmeier Decl. ¶¶ 27.) Additionally, plaintiff has determined that Bright House Networks is the ISP that provided the above-referenced IP address to John Doe. (Hansmeier Decl. ¶ 24, 28.)

On May 3, 2012, plaintiff filed the pending Application in order to discover John Doe's actual name so that plaintiff may name him in an amended complaint and serve process. (See Application at 4 ("Without knowing [John Doe's] identity, Plaintiff will have no means to name and serve anyone with process.").) Plaintiff seeks leave of court to serve a Rule 45 subpoena on Bright House Networks in order to learn the actual name of John Doe. Additionally, plaintiff asserts that certain ISPs lease or otherwise allocate certain IP addresses to unrelated ISPs, and that the absence of a direct relationship, such as a contractual relationship, between the "lessor ISP" and the end-user deprives the lessor ISP of the ability to identify alleged infringers like John Doe. (Application at 2; Hansmeier Decl. ¶ 30.) Accordingly, plaintiff also seeks leave to serve Rule 45 subpoenas on "lessee" ISPs to the extent that Bright House Networks is a lessor ISP that cannot identify John Doe. (See Application at 2; Hansmeier Decl. ¶ 30; Proposed Order at 1-2, Dkt. No. 7, Doc. No. 7-2.)

No status (pretrial scheduling) conference has been set in this case. (See Order Requiring Joint Status Report at 2, Dkt. No. 5.) It is highly unlikely that a discovery conference pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(f) has taken place given plaintiff's representation that it does not presently know John Doe's actual name.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1) provides: "A party may not seek discovery from any source before the parties have conferred as required by Rule 26(f), except in a proceeding exempted from initial disclosure under Rule 26(a)(1)(B), or when authorized by these rules, by stipulation, or by court order" (emphasis added). District courts within the Ninth Circuit have permitted expedited discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference upon a showing of "good cause." See, e.g., In re Countrywide Fin. Corp. Derivative Litig., 542 F. Supp. 2d 1160, 1179 (C.D. Cal. 2008) (citing Semitool, Inc. v. Tokyo Electron Am., Inc., 208 F.R.D. 273 (N.D. Cal. 2002)); accord Am. LegalNet, Inc. v. Davis, 673 F. Supp. 2d 1063, 1066 (C.D. Cal. 2009). "Good cause exists where the need for expedited discovery, in consideration of the administration of justice, outweighs the prejudice to the responding party." In re Countrywide Fin. Corp. Derivative Litig., 542 F. Supp. 2d at 1179 (citation and quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Here, plaintiff seeks permission to conduct limited early discovery and serve Rule 45 subpoenas on ISPs that may very well be able to assist plaintiff in identifying the true identity of John Doe. District courts within the Ninth Circuit have regularly found good cause supporting early or expedited discovery in cases where the plaintiff alleged copyright infringement accomplished through distribution of the work over a peer-to-peer network, and where the plaintiff only named Doe defendants and sought early discovery to obtain the identities and contact information of the alleged infringers from associated ISPs. See, e.g., Berlin Media Art E.K. v. Does 1 through 146, No. S-11-2039 KJM GGH, 2011 WL 4056167, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2011) (unpublished) (granting leave to conduct expedited discovery in the form of Rule 45 subpoenas seeking "information sufficient to identify each Doe defendant by name, current and permanent address, telephone number, and e-mail address"); UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Doe, No. C 08-1193 SBA, 2008 WL 4104214, at *4-5 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 3, 2008) (unpublished) (granting leave to conduct expedited discovery in the form of Rule 45 subpoenas seeking "documents that identify Defendant, including the name, current (and permanent) address and telephone number, e-mail address, and Media Access Control addresses for Defendant" John Doe); Arista Records LLC v. Does 1-43, No. 07cv2357-LAB (POR), 2007 WL 4538697, at *1-2 (S.D. Cal. Dec. 20, 2007) (granting leave to conduct expedited discovery in the form of Rule 45 subpoenas seeking documents that would reveal each Doe defendant's "true name, current and permanent addresses and telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Media Access Control addresses.").

For example, in Arista Records LLC, the plaintiffs alleged that unidentified defendants used an online media distribution system to download and distribute plaintiffs' copyrighted works to the public without permission. Arista Records LLC, 2007 WL 4538697, at

*1. Because the plaintiffs were only able to identify each defendant by a unique IP address assigned to that defendant, plaintiffs filed an ex parte application seeking leave to immediately serve discovery on a nonparty ISPs to identify the Doe defendants' true identities. Id. The district court found good cause to allow expedited discovery on the basis of the plaintiffs' prima facie showing of infringement, the risk that the ISP would not long preserve the information sought, the narrow tailoring of the requests to the minimum amount of information needed to identify the defendants without prejudicing their rights, and the fact that the expedited discovery would substantially contribute to moving the case forward. Id. The court further noted that, without such discovery, plaintiffs could not identify the Doe defendants and would not be able to pursue their lawsuit to protect their copyrighted works. Id.

Here, the undersigned finds that good cause supports permitting plaintiff to conduct limited early discovery in order to discover John Doe's actual identity and contact information.*fn6 First, plaintiff has persuasively argued that it cannot identify John Doe without limited early discovery and, therefore cannot name John Doe or serve him with process. Second, plaintiff plainly cannot conduct a Rule 26(f) conference without knowing John Doe's real name and contact information. Third, plaintiff's representations presently support that the IP address that plaintiff identified is associated with a particular individual and that the discovery sought will facilitate identification of, and service of process on, John Doe. Fourth, plaintiff's investigative technician has declared that some ISPs store subscriber information associated with particular IP addresses for as little as months or weeks, which supports permitting expedited discovery.*fn7 (Hansmeier Decl. ¶ 29.) The undersigned also finds, at least on the present record, that there is little risk of material prejudice to John Doe or the ISPs if the ISPs are served with Rule 45 subpoenas that require the ISPs to provide the actual name and contact information of one of its customers. Finally, John Doe and each ISP may move to quash the subpoena or seek a protective order.

In short, good cause supports permitting plaintiff to conduct limited, expedited discovery. The minimal risk of prejudice to John Doe, Bright House Networks, or the intermediary ISPs, if any, does not outweigh plaintiff's need for the discovery sought.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:

1. Plaintiff's ex parte application to conduct expedited discovery (Dkt. No. 7) is granted.

2. Plaintiff may immediately serve a subpoena pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 on Bright House Networks to identify the name and contact information for the John Doe defendant who is associated with IP address 174.134.190.54, and may also serve such subpoenas on any "intermediary" or "lessee" ISP that is identified as a result of the subpoena served on Bright House Networks as providing defendant John Doe with Internet services at IP address 174.134.190.54. Such subpoenas shall be limited in scope and may only seek the following information about defendant John Doe: name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address. A copy of this order shall be attached to any such subpoena.

3. Bright House Networks, and any other ISP subpoenaed pursuant to this order, shall in turn serve a copy of the subpoena and a copy of this order on the subscriber, defendant John Doe, within 14 days from the date of service of the subpoena on the ISP. An ISP may serve the subscriber using any reasonable means, including written notice sent to the subscriber's last known address, transmitted either by first-class mail or via overnight service.

4. Any ISP that is served with a subpoena pursuant to this order shall confer with plaintiff before assessing any charge in advance of providing the information requested in the subpoena. Any ISP that elects to charge for the costs of production shall provide plaintiff with a billing summary and cost reports.

5. Nothing in this order precludes any of the ISPs or defendant John Doe from challenging the subpoenas consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and this court's Local Rules. However, any such challenge, such as a motion to quash the subpoena or a motion for a protective order, shall be filed before the return date of the subject subpoena, and the return date shall be no earlier than 30 days from the date of service of the subpoena on the ISP.

6. If an ISP or the subscriber files a motion to quash or a motion for a protective order, the ISP shall preserve the information sought by the subpoena pending resolution of such a motion.

7. Any information disclosed to plaintiff by any ISP may only be used by plaintiff for the purpose of protecting its rights under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq., and other rights stated in the complaint.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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