Around mid June, 2012 I received a rather nasty letter from the German law firm Sasse & Partner accusing me of torrenting the film “Iron Sky” and threatening a lawsuit. There are so many ethical, factual, and legal problems with this situation that I couldn’t help but document the experience. Hopefully this will help others who find themselves in similar circumstances. In doing so I want to make it clear from the beginning that I am not suggesting a course of action or otherwise offering legal advice, but simply describing my experience.
The first letter I received from Sasse & Partner presented me with the gist of the situation: they claim to have very strong evidence that I had used file-sharing software to download a film and an expensive lawsuit could maybe be avoided if I immediately:
If you read the contract they ask you to sign, it is very clear that signing it and paying them money would not prevent them from suing me in the future (at which point I would have officially admitted guilt in the matter). Some problems:
Now I imagine you may be rolling your eyes and thinking sure you didn’t. But I really didn’t, and anyway the burden is on the accuser to prove the affirmative.
At first I thought it was a scam, but after some research online I found that this firm specializes in sending these extortion-esque letters. It’s their business. I imagine the cost of sending a couple thousand letters is a small investment if a few of them are scared enough to pay up. Their operation was so transparent this was something I was not going to consider. In any event, I the amount of contempt I felt at the firm for sending me this letter was way off the contempt-meter. If they wanted money, they would have to take me to court.
Let’s take a second and examine what they consider to be “evidence”. Included in the first letter was the following four lines:
Datum / Uhrzeit: 28.05.2012 / 15:07:30 CET
Datei-Hash: SHA1: 41A602EA07CAB6F25582811E8BAD2FC5FF7732EC
I assume the IP address is legitimate; it checks out to near where I would have lived. I was able to find the torrent in question on The Pirate Bay, so it’s a real torrent. The name is different, but the infohash (“SHA1” according to Sasse) is the same.
So at the end of the day what they have is an IP address. Nothing more. Unfortunately for Sasse & Partner, IP addresses don’t have any significant sue-able income, so I guess I was the next best thing. But where did they obtain this information?
As mentioned in the first letter, Sasse & Partner obtained the IP address from a firm named Guardaley. Guardaley ostensibly monitors p2p networks and then sells the IP addresses they collect to whoever pays them. I use the word “ostensably” because the Bavarian courts have ruled Guardaley technically incompetent to provide such services. It’s clear that one doesn’t even have to share files to be reported by them. Tl;dr: they make it all up. This explains why I received the legal threat when I had not downloaded the material in question. The legal disclaimer on their website sums up their business rather succinctly:
The author reserves the right not to be responsible for the topicality, correctness, completeness or quality of the information provided.
Furthermore, and I know this is a ruling from the US, an IP address is not a person
There are many helpful resources of information dealing with what to do when faced with such a lawsuit (threat), such as http://abmahnung-blog.de/ or by material distributed by the German Pirate Party here and here.
Basically, the first step which is often suggested (and I’m no lawyer, so I’m not recommending this course of action) is to write a so called “Mod UE”. This is I ended up writing. Basically it says that you admit no guilt and you want the firm to prove that they have the rights to sue you on behalf of whoever actually holds the copyright. Here is the form I used to generate the letter. I forget where exactly I downloaded this originally, but it was from one of the local Pirate Party websites.
My strategy was to send a certified copy of this letter and wait for my date in court (if it ever came). Other than this letter I did not say anything to anyone: no blog posts, no Facebook, no communication with Sasse & Partner, nothing.
I felt it important during this process to browse the internet anonymously. My ISP obviously had no qualms about sharing my personal information with a third party without a court order, and would not hesitate to do it again.
I received a second, more threating letter in the mail shortly after with much of the same verbage, though they had increased the amount they wanted me to pay by 59.80 EUR! On the first page they claim that the information they received from Guardaley is “definitive” in the legal sense.
Aufgrund der für ein gerichtliches Verfahren dokumentierten Daten der Guardaley Ltd. steht in technischer Hinsicht definitiv fest, dass die Rechtsverletzung von Ihrem Internetanschluss aus begangen worden ist.
And are quick to state that:
Ein technisches Versehen oder eine Verwechslung ist ausgeschlossen.
A technical error or confusion is impossible.
Sounds legit! At this point I am feeling confident that they won’t sue, knowing what I do about Guardaley and the amount of letters they’ve sent out. I’m just a statistic.
Many months later I received the following letter from Sasse & Partner. It read as follows:
in oben bezeichneter Angelegenheit sind Zweifel aufgekommen, ob der Ihnen zur Last gelegte Urheberrechtsverstoß noch mit der für eine Verurteilung notwendigen Sicherheit nachgewiesen werden kann. Unsere Mandantin ist daher zu der Auffassung gelangt, den Anspruch hier nicht mehr weiter zu verfolgen.
Die Angelegenheit ist für Sie daher erledigt.
Bitte leisten Sie zu diesem Vorgang keine (weiteren) Zahlungen.
in the matter named above doubts have arisen as to whether the alleged copyright infringement can still be detected with the necessary security for a conviction. Our client is therefore come to the conclusion, the claim here no longer be pursued.
The matter is finished.
Please contribute to this process, no (further) payments.
You get that? They have no case and I should not make any additional payments. I feel sorry for those who got taken advantage of by Sasse & Partner, paying them to avoid a lawsuit that had no merit to begin with.
Some thoughts on the experience. I have nothing nice to say.
The letters sent by Sasse & Partner are nothing short of legal extortion.
They prey on the ignorance and technical/legal illiteracy of the populace and fear of an expensive lawsuit to make money through settlements. Ech.
Guardaley is almost worse than Sasse & Parner, providing unreliable and outright false information to their clients.
Your ISP is not on your side. They will hand over your personal information at the drop of a hat without a court order.
The situation presents a rather frightening scenario, if indeed an IP address alone is enough to legally establish a crime has taken place.