It has been almost exactly two years since Judge Otis Wright released his blistering opinion of Prenda Law and the guys behind it, John Steele, Paul Hansmeier and Paul Duffy (“Team Prenda”). There have been various fights here and there since then, but the specific appeal in that case was finally heard yesterday and you can (and should) watch the whole damn thing (which runs almost exactly an hour and a half — though if you’re short on time, you can skip the Morgan Pietz part, and just focus on the first and last parts involving Team Prenda’s lawyer, Daniel Voelker).
“Do you understand that the maximum penalty for contempt is life imprisonment?”
In short, Team Prenda’s own lawyer not only seemed completely unprepared and out of his depth in the hearing, he ended up arguing that rather than just pay $250,000, his clients would prefer to face criminal charges with the chance of life in prison (though, admittedly, such a sentence would be highly unlikely). From all indications, all three judges seem prepared to give Team Prenda what their lawyer appeared to be claiming they wanted.
There were many guffaw-worthy moments throughout the arguments, including Judge Tallman asking about the infamous Alan Cooper forgery, and Voelker playing really dumb, leading Tallman to ask if the “tooth fairy” made the document appear. Judge Tallman also repeatedly pointed out, in disbelief, that Voelker could assert that his clients had no idea how the document got forged when Cooper was Steele’s “gardener” (actually housekeeper, but close enough).
All three of the judges seemed well aware of what Team Prenda was up to and how nefarious copyright trolling is. Judge Pregerson, who is 91 years old, talked about how his clerks explained to him how BitTorrent works, and then pretty clearly detailed how Team Prenda (and other copyright trolls) abuse the court system to “extort” settlements from end users. He concludes his description by saying, “Now that is just an ingenious… crooked, extortionate operation.” Later he said, “They used our court system for illegal purposes — to extort money.” At least one of the other judges, Judge Nguyen referred to copyright trolling as “extortion” as well. The judges didn’t refer to Prenda as a company or a law firm, but rather an “operation.” It was a complete bloodbath. The judges also seemed well aware of other Prenda proceedings elsewhere in the country as well.
Basically, the judges seemed not just aware of, but very convinced by the evidence against Prenda’s copyright trolling practices. Much of the opening part of the arguments consisted of the judges asking Voelker about those facts — and Voelker dodging every one of those questions or responding that he didn’t know, and then going back to procedural questions. The three-judge panel all found this completely unconvincing, and even where they were willing to grant potential procedural problems (mainly with the punitive sanctions on top of attorneys’ fees), noted that if they rejected those, at the very least they were likely to (as mentioned above) just send the case back for criminal proceedings, which almost certainly would leave Team Prenda even worse off. Voelker’s standard response: “They want their day in court.” It sounds like they might get it.
There were two other really amazing tidbits, both from Judge Pregerson. First, right after describing the whole copyright trolling mess and (as noted above) calling it a “crooked, extortionate operation,” he noted how historic this case was and how badly it was going to reflect on Voelker, even suggesting that Voelker may be implicated directly as well:
Pregerson: This is going to be written about for years and years, and you’re probably going to be part of the story. They all will be. I don’t know where this is going to end up. If they really want to have a trial on this… are you sure they want that?
Voelker: Absolutely your honor! They want a trial…
Pregerson: Is that what you want?
Voelker: Your honor, what I want is irrelevant. I’m just an appellate attorney. I’m not…
Pregerson: Well, you may be involved in this.
Voelker: I’m sorry your honor?
Pregerson: You may be involved!
Voelker: I don’t believe so, your honor, with all due respect. I’m just the attorney.
And then that leads into this astounding bit of courtroom drama:
Pregerson: And you’re a great lawyer.
Voelker: I really appreciate that.
Pregerson: That’s what your ad says when you go on the internet, right? I wonder how many “super lawyers” there are in this country?
Voelker: There are a lot of them.
Pregerson: There are a lot of them. And a lot of them is BS too.
If you want another recap from someone who knows a hell of a lot more about how epically bad this went for Prenda, check out Popehat’s take, which includes this:
I have never seen an oral argument go so badly for an advocate. The judges were immersed in the details of the record and plainly convinced that Prenda was a criminal operation that merited some sort of sanction. They clearly viewed the case not in isolation, but as part of a series of cases involving Prenda across the country — most of which are turning out very badly for Prenda. It seemed clear that they believed that Judge Wright had the power to impose some sort of sanctions, and that the record supported his doing so.
I know that many of the Prenda watchers among our readers here keep wondering how it is that Team Prenda is not yet in jail. There are a lot of reasons for that, frankly, but their appeal in the 9th Circuit may actually lead them much closer to being in jail, in part because their own lawyer effectively said that’s what they wanted.