Lawyers to keep sending piracy threats

Despite being widely criticised by the media and the legal establishment, at least one UK law firm intends to continue sending thousands of threatening letters to Internet users.

ACS:Law plans, according to the Guardian, to send out 50,000 to 60,000 legal documents accusing broadband users of violating copyright law based on the slimmest of evidence.

The company, which ironically uses modified P2P software to trace the unique online 'fingerprints' of alleged offenders, uses the current law to force ISPs to hand over the personal details of the person who pays for the connection.

This time last year there were three companies using these questionable tactics to rattle people into coughing up between £500 and £700 for alleged infringements of copyright law. Davenport Lyons has recently abandoned its campaign of intimidation and transferred some of its staff and work to ACS:Law, whilst Tilley Bailey and Irving, which sent out about 250 letters, dropped the scheme all together last week according to a report.

A campaign - spearheaded by consumer champion Which and the BBCs Watchdog programme - led to the exposure of a raft of embarrassing miscarriages of justice as octogenarian couples were accused of downloading and distributing hard core gay porn and computer-phobic Luddites were told that they hadn't done enough to secure their wifi connection, when the didn't even have such a thing.

In another high-profile gaffe the games company Atari had to write letters of apology to a number of innocent people after Davenport Lyons erroneously accused them of stealing and offering for download the company's software.

Now it looks like ACS:Law is the last surviving exponent of a money-making scheme which looks to all the world like a scam but is, in fact, completeley above board and legal.

Anecdotal evidence suggest that between 15 and 40 per cent of the people who receive these letters are so intimidated by the legal language and threatening nature of the missives that they pay up without question.

And it's these frightened and confused individuals which allow the likes of ACS:Law to continue to operate in such a manner. Every time somone sends them a cheque it perpetuates another round of letter-writing and the cash keeps rolling in.

The simple fact of the matter is that, as far as we can tell, not one single person has ever ended up in court as a result of one of "speculative invoices" as they have been dubbed by civil rights organisations.

Although the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" doesn't count for tuppence in civil cases - the weight of evidence has only to tip in one direction or the other - the onus is still on the accuser to provide that evidence.

So far the fact that someone's IP address has been used to commit an illegal act has never been tested in a UK court.

The hotchpotch of industry-led, hastily penned and barley scrutinised nonsense that is the Digital Economy Bill could easily have fired the final nail into the coffin of this cynical scatter-gun approach to extracting money with menaces but, as is the case with all legislation written by people don't know the difference between Internet Protocol and Intellectual Property, the bill punishes innocent poeple rather than the real pirates.

Let's face it, anyone who is savvy enough to do any real damage to the billion dollar bottom line of a major media company is probably smart enough to hide his IP address in the first place using an anonymous proxy server.

If you do receive one of these obnoxious letters please don't panic or pay up. You should first read this handbook which was put togther by the nice folks over at Beingthreatened.com

It contains sage advice about what to do if you find yourself accused of P2P shenanigans you had nothing to do with, template letters of response which should keep the vultures off of your back for a short time if not permanently, and lots of further reassurances that no-one has ever been succesfully prosecuted in a court of law as a result of one of these odious letters.

It also points out a number of "monumentally large weaknesses" in the claims and contains a useful flow diagram which tells you how you should proceed throughout the case.

As the handbook points out, "There has never been a case in the UK where someone has been found guilty of this type of infringement using solely IP address evidence. There is also no trustworthy information to suggest that the companies involved have any intention of letting a case ever see the inside of a court room."

Even the music industry has attacked the tactics of law firms which fire off thousands of letters in the hope that a few frightened individuals will succumb to unwarranted legal pressure and the threat of ruinous court action. "Our view is that legal action is best reserved for the most persistent or serious offenders - rather than widely used as a first response," said the organisation's spokesman Andrew Liversage.