A local porn company says an actor violated copyright law when he used this image (sans eyepatch) in an escort ad. Photo courtesy of Corbin Fisher / Treatment by Adam Vieyra.
Marc Randazza doesn't bluff when he sues digital pirates.
“Sometimes I will even send them my first draft, with ‘DRAFT' stamped across it,” the lawyer says. “I'll update them every day as I complete the suit. Then they can actually watch the hurricane coming toward their house.”
It's about 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22. Three hours earlier, Randazza successfully bullied an eBay seller hocking pirated DVDs into ponying up nearly a million bucks. The lawyer says that's only 10 percent of what he could've gotten if had he taken it to trial.
Liberty Media Holdings, the San Diego firm behind the Corbin Fisher brand of gay porn, recruited Randazza six months ago, and he hit the information superhighway running. As general counsel, the journalist-turned-lawyer is suing bootleggers, cyber-squatters (such as the owners of the misspelled Cobinfisher.com) and sites that allow users to upload stolen content.
Liberty Media operates in Hillcrest under the name of a web-design agency; there's no outward indication the company is involved in pornography. Instead, to the observer's eye, the office looks more like a law practice. Public-policy and news magazines are stacked on the waiting-room table. CNN plays on a flat-screen in a break room stocked with 21 different teas and coffees. A paralegal occupies the reception desk, where an inch-thick federal-court filing awaits Randazza's inspection.
Randazza calls Corbin Fisher's fans “one big detective agency,” a loyal cadre of subscribers who send hundreds of e-mails each week alerting Liberty Media that its content appears illegally elsewhere on the Internet. Randazza files suit only against 10 percent, the rest just receive cease-and-desist notices.
David Trice, the Dallas-based eBay seller who agreed to the $990,000 “consent judgment,” had been offering DVDs packed with Corbin Fisher files to users who didn't want the charges to show up on their bills. That's a violation of Corbin Fisher's terms of service, Randazza says, but what was worse was how the poor quality reflected on the Fisher brand. Plus, another bootlegger in Pittsburgh had begun mass-producing those reproductions.
“It's cheap knock-offs that make us look bad,” Randazza says. “It's just as if you put a Ferrari tag on a Yugo and someone saw it. They'd say a Ferrari's a piece of shit.”
Randazza's opinion of the company's product is about as humble as the black leather and cutting-edge multimedia technology in the office's conference room, where Randazza and his boss, Fisher himself, grant an interview. In his legal briefs, Randazza uniformly emphasizes the “high quality” of the porn.
“I don't care if you're gay or straight, you're going to look at it and go,” Randazza says, dropping into a whisper, “‘That's damned good porn.'”
Reclining two chairs away, Fisher estimates that the company's profits would jump by 50 percent if pirating were magically eliminated.
The Corbin Fisher “Institute of Higher Yearning” offers five-day passes to AmateurCollegeMen.com for $24.95 and three-month memberships for $89.95 that can be renewed monthly for $24.95. At that price, the company has to maintain an image that's professional and responsible, if not classy. And since the hardcore porn bears his name, Fisher has to take piracy personally.
Fisher asked CityBeat not to describe his physical appearance. What can be said is that he's not the young Eric Bana look-alike with the exposed erection who's claiming to be him in an ad posted on Men4RentNow.com. In a federal-court filing, Liberty Media claims that a former actor—the man in the photo above—is using copyrighted images and Fisher's name on his online escort profile.
“That doesn't fit with the image we worked very hard to build here,” Fisher says, pointing out that the actor's contract prohibits using images for outside commercial purposes, and especially not for “prostitution.”
Randazza's weapon is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 1998 federal legislation that lays out the remedies for electronic copyright theft. Among other provisions, it set $750 minimum and $150,000 maximum damages per offense.
“We've had someone steal one picture and they paid a five-figure settlement,” Randazza says. “It may seem like hitting a fly with a sledgehammer, but when you've got 500 flies flying around and you can only kill one, you might as well squash it so the other flies see maybe they should go feed somewhere else.”
Aggressive infringement suits have spurred a backlash in the online community. In 2008, for example, Wired magazine slammed another California gay-porn company, Titan Media, when it “shot first and asked questions later” in a lawsuit against YouTube.com-competitor Veoh.com. A judge found in Veoh's favor, ruling that it had effective measures in place to delete illegal files.
“Online piracy is obviously harmful to content providers,” Wired blogger Betsy Schiffman writes. “But for the sake of an argument, let's say Titan Media spent the money that otherwise would have gone to lawyers on developing a web strategy…. It may not have been very effective, but the internet isn't going away, nor is piracy, so they might as well try to work with it.”
The debate has also turned political. In 2009, Sweden's “Pirate Party”—which aims to reform international copyright laws in favor of users—won a seat on the European Parliament. The “Pirate MEP,” Christian Engström, suggests the porn industry is exploiting the law.
“It seems that this is part of a larger trend, where the entertainment companies are realizing that they can make more money from suing their customers than from selling their products,” Engström tells CityBeat via e-mail. “The big record companies led the way…. It is depressing, but not very surprising, to see other players jumping on this legalized extortion bandwagon.”
Randazza disagrees: Corbin Fisher rakes it in with its product. Instead, the goal is to protect the brand. Sometimes, however, it's personal.
Liberty Media is suing Dudevu.com, a “tube” site that allowed users to post streaming content, some of which was ripped from other sites. Randazza said his staff sifted through various aliases and shell companies to discover the site was attached to another gay-porn outfit, Tylersroom.com. Competing producers are supposed to watch each other's backs.
“It was one of our own,” Fisher laments.
Randazza adds, “To cannibalize somebody inside your own industry, I think, is unforgivable.”
But for the average user caught with stolen material, Randazza suggests that Congress amend the law to allow copyright cases to be heard in lower courts, rather than exclusively on the federal level.
“That might make it a little easier and [the penalties] a little more proportional,” Randazza says. “If you stole a couple of songs and the RIAA said they were going to take you to small-claims court for $500, you might be more willing to say, ‘Yeah, I screwed up.'”
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.