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Prenda Law lawyer loses attempt to file more piracy lawsuits from prison

A person's hand inserting a key into the lock on a jail-cell door.

Getty Images | Charles O’Rear

Paul Hansmeier, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence for filing sham copyright infringement lawsuits and extorting money from victims, has lost an attempt to enforce copyrights from prison. In a ruling Monday, a federal judge rejected Hansmeier’s request to prevent the government from enforcing mail-wire fraud and money laundering laws against him. Hansmeier wanted an injunction so that he could file copyright lawsuits without facing new charges.

Hansmeier, who is also appealing his conviction despite having pleaded guilty, will be familiar to Ars readers as one of the principals behind the notorious “copyright troll” firm Prenda Law. He was sentenced in June 2019 “for an elaborate fraud scheme that involved uploading pornographic videos to file-sharing networks and then threatening to sue people who downloaded them,” as our reporting at the time said. Prenda Law’s strategy involved seeking settlements of a few thousand dollars from each victim.

Prenda Law founder John Steele pleaded guilty in 2017 to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering and cooperated in the investigation into Hansmeier. Hansmeier ultimately pleaded guilty to the same charges in August 2018. Steele was sentenced to five years in prison in July 2019.

Hansmeier and Steele obtained subscriber information from Internet service providers and “threaten[ed] victims with enormous financial penalties and public embarrassment unless they agreed to pay a $3,000 settlement fee,” the US Department of Justice said in a press release at the time of Hansmeier’s sentencing. They obtained a total of $3 million “from extortion victims to settle sham copyright infringement lawsuits,” the DOJ said.

Hansmeier claimed his “litigation will be socially valuable”

Last week, Hansmeier filed a motion in US District Court for the District of Minnesota saying he wants to “hire an undercover investigator to protect his copyrights against Internet piracy and bring claims under the Copyright Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act against people who trespass on his computers to infringe his works.”

The motion sought an injunction preventing “the government from enforcing the mail-wire fraud conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 1349) and money laundering conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 1956(h)) statutes against [Hansmeier] on account of this copyright enforcement activity.” US District Judge Joan Ericksen denied the request for a preliminary injunction in a brief order. TorrentFreak covered the ruling in an article on Wednesday.

Hansmeier’s now-rejected motion for an injunction said his proposed “litigation will be socially valuable. Internet piracy is a cancer eating away at the markets for creative expression.” Hansmeier’s motion claimed his new lawsuits would “avoid association with pornography” and enforce copyrights “in less socially stigmatizing material, like poetry.”

Hansmeier also told the court he would “sue fewer people; instead of suing thousands of people at a time, he will bring more significant cases against a considerably smaller number of people.” But his motion said he “is chilled from engaging in this petitioning activity by the credible threat of criminal prosecution” due to “Hansmeier’s current imprisonment based on his participation in copyright enforcement activity similar to that which he wants to participate in now.”

Ericksen’s order noted that Hansmeier is “subject to a filing restriction.” The restriction was imposed in March 2022 by US District Judge John Tunheim in a ruling that said Hansmeier “has filed at least sixteen actions in this district alone challenging the constitutionality of the federal mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion statutes.”

Hansmeier’s challenges filed from prison “allege that the statutes are unconstitutional because they either prevent him from pursuing copyright enforcement or prevent him from assisting unidentified individuals pursuing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enforcement claims,” Tunheim wrote. Tunheim’s ruling prohibited Hansmeier from filing new lawsuits or pleadings on those topics in the District of Minnesota against the US attorney general and other federal officials “unless he obtains prior written approval” from the court.

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