Appellate Courts Recognize Strike 3’s Ability to Meet Standard for Early Discovery to Obtain John Doe Defendant’s Name and Address

While some bullheaded District Court judges have stopped Strike 3 in its tracks by denying its request for early discovery, most appellate courts to have considered the issue find that Strike 3’s allegations of copyright ownership and illegal downloading of their works by an identifiable IP address are enough to permit Strike 3 to discover the IP address owner’s name and address.

Federal Rule 26(d)(1) generally prohibits parties from seeking discovery “from any source before the parties have conferred as required by Rule 26(f).”  Further, Rule 26(d) does not set a standard for determining when expedited discovery should be permitted.  District courts possess broad discretion in managing the discovery process and may expedite or otherwise alter its timing or sequence. In re Fine Paper Antitrust Litig., 685 F.2d 810, 817 (3d Cir. 1982) (“matters of docket control and conduct of discovery are committed to the sound discretion of the district court”). Absent guidance from the rule itself, courts faced with motions for leave to serve expedited discovery requests to ascertain the identity of John Doe defendants in internet copyright infringement cases often apply the “good cause” test.

Good cause exists where the “need for expedited discovery, in consideration of the administration of justice, outweighs the prejudice to the responding party.”  Malibu Media, LLC v. John Doe, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32445 *1 (D.N.J. Mar. 14, 2016). Under the good cause test, whether to permit expedited discovery is decided by considering the totality of the circumstances and the balancing of the interests of the plaintiff and defendant.

A non-exclusive list of factors courts typically examine in conducting the good cause analysis include:

(1) the timing of the request in light of the formal start to discovery;

(2) whether the request is narrowly tailored;

(3) the purpose of the requested discovery;

(4) whether the discovery burdens the defendant; and

(5) whether the defendant can respond to the request in an expedited manner.

Other courts have offered related but different factors for consideration, including:

(1) the plaintiff’s ability to make out a prima facie showing of infringement,

(2) the specificity of the discovery request,

(3) the absence of alternative means for obtaining the information sought in the subpoena,

(4) the need for the information sought in order to advance the claim, and

(5) the defendant’s expectation of privacy.

[See Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 329 F.R.D. 518, 521 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) (citing Arista Records, LLC v. Doe 3, 604 F.3d 110, 119 (2d Cir. 2010).]

It is a first principle of federal civil procedure that litigants are entitled to discovery before being put to their proof.

In conducting any discovery inquiry, the Third Circuit has suggested that district courts risk reversal if their rulings will make it impossible for any party to “obtain crucial evidence[.]”  See In re Fine Paper Antitrust Litig., 685 F.2d at 818 (quoting Eli Lilly & Co. v. Generix Drug Sales, Inc., 460 F.2d 1096, 1105 (5th Cir. 1972)) (“[the Third Circuit] will not upset a district court’s conduct of discovery procedures absent ‘a demonstration that the court’s action made it impossible to obtain crucial evidence'”).  After all, it is a first principle of federal civil procedure that litigants “are entitled to discovery before being put to their proof.” Bennett v. Schmidt, 153 F.3d 516, 519 (7th Cir. 1998).

The legal standard requires, however, that where well-pled factual allegations exist, courts should “assume their veracity” at the pleading stage.  Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 233 n.6 (3d Cir. 2004) (cautioning that courts should permit “discovery before testing a complaint for factual [as opposed to legal] sufficiency”).  It is well settled that a pleading is sufficient if it contains “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).  The focus, therefore, is not on whether the plaintiff will ultimately be able to prove each of the alleged facts in the complaint, but simply whether, if such facts are later proven to be true, the plaintiff has stated a legally actionable claim.

In a Strike 3 Holdings case brought in the District of New Jersey, the District Court reversed the Magistrate Judge’s denial for early discovery (Strike 3 requested permission to serve a subpoena on an ISP to obtain the name of the owner of the IP addressed alleged to have been used to download Strike 3’s videos) holding that Strike 3’s allegations that it owned the rights to films that the named John Doe Defendants pirated on particular dates and times using an identifiable IP address were sufficient to allow for early discovery.  See Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114598, at *11-14 (D.N.J. June 30, 2020).  The Magistrate Judge had based its decision on seven considerations:

  1. Strike 3 bases its complaints on unequivocal affirmative representations of alleged facts that it does not know to be true;
  2. Strike 3’s subpoenas are misleading and create too great of an opportunity for misidentification;
  3. the linchpin of Strike 3’s good cause argument, that expedited discovery is the only way to stop infringement of its works, is wrong;
  4. Strike 3 has other available means to stop infringement besides suing individual subscribers in thousands of John Doe complaints;
  5. the deterrent effect of Strike 3’s lawsuits is questionable;
  6. substantial prejudice may inure to subscribers who are misidentified; and
  7. Strike 3 underestimates the substantial interest subscribers have in the constitutionally protected privacy of their subscription information.

But, the Magistrate Judge erred in not accepting Strike 3 allegations as true and presuming that just because Strike 3 had not yet obtained evidence to link the IP address owner to the alleged infringement it could not do so in the future after obtaining relevant discovery.  Plaintiff is not required to sufficiently establish the John Doe Defendant did the infringing at the pleading stage, rather Plaintiff must only allege facts that allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.  See Blakeslee v. Clinton Cty., 336 F. App’x 248, 250 (3d Cir. 2009) (“Use of John Doe defendants is permissible in certain situations until reasonable discovery permits the true defendants to be identified”).  Relying on Third Circuit precedent, the District Court re-affirmed that meritorious claims must be permitted to proceed even if a plaintiff cannot adduce all the necessary facts at the outset, including the identity of the Defendant.

Because Strike 3 sufficiently stated a viable claim of copyright infringement against the identified IP addresses and its placeholder-defendant subscribers, Strike 3 is entitled to discovery to further assist it in identifying the underlying wrongdoer.  Any consideration of the merits of Strike 3’s claims before permitting discovery to identify the placeholder-defendants, including whether Plaintiff has sued the correct Defendants, would be inappropriate at the pleading stage.

Finally, because the requested early discovery (name and address of IP subscriber) was narrowly tailored (requesting no more than would be required to identify the relevant individual) and there did not exist an alternative means for legally obtaining this crucial information, the District Court joined a growing number of other courts in finding good cause existed for Strike 3’s request to serve a subpoena to obtain the name and address of the John Doe owner of the IP address.