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Online piracy – new law firm targets web users

Thousands being accused of illegal file sharing

The government plans to crack down harder people illegally sharing files online.

Another law firm has begun sending letters to consumers, accusing them of unlawfully downloading and sharing copyright-protected material over the internet.

Gallant Macmillan LLP Solicitors (Gallant) has sent approximately 1500 letters of claim on behalf of its client, the Ministry of Sound Recordings Ltd (MoS), since appearing to have moved into the business of volume claims against those alleged to be file sharing illicitly earlier this month.

Which? Computing was alerted to the new entrant into the field by two readers, who said they had received letters from the law firm wrongly accusing them of illegally downloading and distributing ‘the Annual 2010’, a compilation album of dance music from 2009, via a BitTorrent network.

The album’s copyright is registered to the MoS and Gallant has told them that its client will accept £375 and costs within 21 days to settle its claim against them. Which? Computing understands that Gallant is preparing to send out further letters in relation to other copyright material owned by the MoS.

Unlike letters of claim sent by law firms Davenport Lyons, ACS: Law Solicitors and Tilly Bailey Irvine, the letters are gentler in tone and do no threaten legal proceedings. Instead, they state: ‘If you do not accept the offer in this letter or explain why you dispute liability within the next 21 days, our client reserves the right to commence proceedings against you’.

Have you received a letter accusing you of illegal file-sharing? Read our advice on how to respond to the accusations

Which? rebuffs accusations

Which? has contacted the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) about the firm’s letters. ‘Although we don’t think the tone and language of the letters are as bad as the others three law practices, we still think there are similarities between all four,’ says Mark McLaren, Which?’s principal public affairs officer.

‘For many consumers, receiving a letter even like the one from Gallant Macmillan is seen by them as saying “pay up or else”. We’ve asked the SRA if it plans to investigate Gallant, especially since we’re aware that the SRA and the Legal Complaints Services contact centres are already beginning to receive complaints from consumers directly about letters of this sort.’

Gallant’s response

Simon Gallant, senior partner with the law firm, said his firm was behaving in accordance with the SRA’s rules and regulations and the Solicitors’ Code of Conduct. ‘I was in communication with the SRA before the firm began to act on behalf of the MoS as I was concerned to address any issues that might arise’, he told Which?.

‘The SRA have given us some general guidance on the applicable conduct rules which we have focused on in preparing to do this work, including the content of letters that we send out and how we deal with responses.

‘I’m well aware that this work has attracted negative publicity for other law firms but the firm has come into this after carrying out a lot of due diligence and is adopting a very different approach to the other firms,’ he explained.

‘The purpose is not to penalise the innocent and we will scrutinize every response with care. If individuals send in letters of denial to us, with reasons why they are not responsible, the firm will consider each letter on its merits and advise the MoS accordingly.’

He said the MoS was willing to proceed to the civil courts if the alleged illegal file sharer does not settle or they do not provide suitable evidence to show why they dispute liability.

Filesharing – the legal opinion

Which? has been advised by an eminent Queen’s Council, a barrister appointed by the Queen, that ‘where a third party does manage to use the internet connection of a subscriber without his or her knowledge or consent and infringes copyright, the subscriber will not be liable for copyright infringement’. When told this, Simon Gallant said he disagreed.

‘In general, wireless routers are supplied with set-up instructions that password protect the wi-fi connection (unless the user chooses to opt out),’ he countered. ‘Furthermore, internet service providers require their customers to password protect their connection as part of their subscription contract.

‘Gallant’s view is that consumers who fail to secure their connections are acting unreasonably and run the risk of liability if a third party illegally file-shares using that connection. There may be exceptions to this position and we will look at each reply on its merits.’

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