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Behind the Story: Solving the mystery of the porn copyright troll

By Dalton Barker

Researching the connection between copyright lawsuits and a porn company can be tricky -- especially while at work.

Claire Suddath, a Bloomberg reporter based in New York City, navigated the murky waters before she published her recent investigative piece: Prenda Law, the Porn Copyright Trolls.

Suddath discovered that Chicago-based Prenda Law had obtained the copyright of multiple pornographic films and was suing individuals who downloaded the films illegally.

By subpoenaing IP addresses, John Steele and Paul Hansmeier, co-founders of the firm, were able to track down illegal porn downloaders and threaten them with suits unless they settled out of court. According to a 2012 Forbes interview, the magazine estimated that Prenda Law had earned more than $15 million from these copyright suits.

Behind The Story
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Finding someone to talk on the record was more difficult than usual, she said, because of the social stigma on pornography. She said defendants either ignored her, refused to talk or were too scared to tell their story. However, Prenda Law sued more than 25,000 people and she eventually found Tony Smith, a nursing student in Collinsville, Ill.

Smith decided to fight Prenda and the suit. Unlike thousands of others who settled, Smith hired attorney Jason Sweet, founding partner at Booth Sweet in Cambridge, Mass., who represented a number of Prenda defendants. He also had a business card from John Steele which provided a direct-link to Prenda Law.

The story progressively became more complex as Suddath found a connection between an Arizona-based Pornography studio, Prenda Law in Chicago and Los Angeles copyright lawyer Morgan Pietz. Pietz started looking into Prenda last November and discovered that the companies suing his clients, Ingenuity 13 and AF Holdings, were offshore companies based in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Pietz found that the caretaker of Steele’s Minnesota vacation property, Alan Cooper, had his identity stolen six-years-ago. His signature and name now appeared as the owner or manager of Ingenuity 13 and AF Holdings. U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II reviewed the case and ordered Prenda Law to pay $81,300 in fees and penalties and vowed to alert the Internal Revenue Service.

Suddath used Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) for federal cases and had to gather state court cases by hand because they are not available through PACER. She learned the program while interning for a Nashville-based investigative reporter named Willy Stern and during her time at the University of Columbia.

She kept organized by creating, “one Word doc divided into sections such as "John Steele" and "AF Holdings" and "History of Prenda."

“History of Prenda was the largest section; to keep it manageable, I organized my facts chronologically. This allowed me to see how the business of Prenda of unfolded,” Suddath said.

Suddath credits two blogs, Fight Copyright Trolls and Die Troll Die, which she says were very helpful and provided a wealth of background information. While she was researching the story, Suddath says she tried to explain the complexity to family and friends, but the explanations were convoluted.  

“I kept working at it and working at it, and one day I realized I'd put the puzzle together.” Suddath said in an email interview. “When I could explain it to someone in a casual conversation, I knew I could write it.”

Suddath believes that investigative pieces are really unsolved mysteries. Journalists can’t look for easily identified quotes or connections.

“Don't ask to interview people because you think you'll need to quote them in the article. Ask to interview them because you want to find out what they know. Solve the mystery.”

Dalton Barker is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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