The story begins for hundreds of Chicago consumers with a letter from their internet service provider, and the news isn't good. The ISP is letting them know a lawsuit has been filed against them, alleging copyright infringement by a movie studio or other entertainment company.
"You should consult an attorney immediately" begins the expensive journey into the world of file-sharing, or 'torrents,' where computer users illegally download movies and share them. It is a world some moviemakers studios want to extinguish.
In just one example of the tide of litigation, scores of defendants in Chicago and the suburbs, named only by their Internet Protocol addresses, are named in 27 separate lawsuits filed by Voltage Pictures assusing them of illegally downloading the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyer's Club. The fine they could face if found liable of the one download: $150,000, per a 1976 copyright law that was aimed at preventing bootlegging.
"The error rate, or number of people who are innocent and targeted, I think, is unfairly high," attorney Jeffrey Antonelli told NBC 5 Investigates.
Antonelli has defended hundreds of consumers accused of piracy, with plaintiffs who range from mainstream moviemakers to pornography distributors, and defendants whose age and demos run the gamut. He says innocent consumers are swept by the multi-defendant filings, often people who have wireless routers and no clue who could have tapped into their service and downloaded movies.
"The problem with these suits," Antonelli says, "it's just so expensive and time-consuming to be cleared. A lot of people feel the burden is too high and would rather settle, even if they're innocent."
The cost to defend a suit is $25,000 to $50,000. Many settle for about $5,000.
"I call it the legal extortion of people," anonymous blogger "John Doe" said. He spoke to NBC5 on the condition of anonymity. He's been sued by movie studios for copyright infringement, and now blasts the industry and its lawyers on his blog www.dietrolldie.com." "Troll" is the pejorative term used by some critics of lawyers who file the multi-defendant lawsuits against consumers.
"This is all about the money. This has nothing to do with copyright infringement and their actions completely show that," he says.
Just do the math: with hundreds of defendants accused of downloading all manner of movies, studios stand to cash in even if only a percentage agree to settle. Critics say the plaintiffs rarely, if ever, go after the "seeders" -- the person who first posts the material for sharing.
Chicago attorney Antonelli says lawmakers need to update the 1976 law to reflect current-day trends, including the popular torrents involved in this case.
Attorneys for Voltage would not comment on the litigation, except to say it involves a "serious matter."
An industry group which represents six major motion picture companies says its members go after websites that engage in large-scale piracy, but does not sue based on individual IP addresses, like in the Voltage suit.