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Attorney Claims It Wasn’t Publicity That Caused the Dropping of the Granny Copyright Suit

from “Porn granny” update: A Chicago law firm has dropped its claims against an East Bay grandmother whom it accused of illegally downloading pornography, in a case that some observers said bordered on extortion.

“It is such good news as this lawsuit has been hanging over my head,” said Jane, a retired widow in her 70s who asked that her real name not be used. “But at the same time, there’s a certain bitterness about the whole thing.”

We first reported on the suit in July, noting that Steele Hansmeier PLLC had filed cases on behalf of adult entertainment companies against thousands of people around the country. The suits usually seek damages for what the law firm says are illegal downloads of adult entertainment on personal computers.

In letters to defendants, the law firm strongly urges people to settle for a few thousands dollars, reminding them that it’s less than what they’d probably pay in attorney’s fees and that a settlement would keep their name out of a court case tied to porn.

Legal observers such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say that the embarrassing allegations and low fees can compel people to pay up even if they’ve done nothing wrong.

Media companies and law firms can dig up defendant names by subpoenaing Internet service providers for the account holders linked to the online address seen downloading or sharing copyrighted files on sites such as BitTorrent. But it’s a notoriously fallible way to identify actual violators. Internet customers routinely allow friends and family to use their accounts or inadvertently leave their Wi-Fi open to neighbors or passers-by.

Jane doesn’t know how her account was used for these purposes, but insists she never downloaded pornography and had never heard of BitTorrent. She refused to pay the settlement fee.

In a recent letter, Steele Hansmeier said it wasn’t pursuing further action against her. It mentioned The Chronicle column but suggested the decision had nothing to do with publicity or principle. Rather, it says the law firm found the actual person responsible for downloading the material in question.

Jane finds the claim dubious.

“They had an unwinnable case, and I called them on it,” she said. “And I hope other people do, too.”

Law firm partner John Steele didn’t respond to an inquiry.

If the firm did find the “real” criminal, one might think it would – or at least should – offer an apology for the strain the case placed on an elderly woman. No such luck.

Instead, in a snide aside, the letter underscored that the firm knew she talked to the newspaper – but that it was impervious to such actions.

“Regarding the San Francisco article, publicity about our efforts are always welcome as it deters infringers,” read the letter signed by Steele. “Also, a movie producer hired our firm after reading the article and for that I thank you.”


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