Customers of Virgin Media and Other UK ISPs Hit by Piracy Letters UPDATE

Customers of several UK broadband ISPs, including Virgin Media (VMO2), have just become the first in a long while to receive a new round of settlement letters (aka -“speculative invoicing“), which tend to be perceived as bullying subscribers by demanding money to settle suspected cases of internet piracy (copyright infringement).

Over the years a number of organisations, which typically act on the orders of Rights Holders, have sent letters to those they suspect of having committed copyright infringement. Such letters often rely upon fallible IP address based evidence – often gathered via public BitTorrent P2P file sharing networks – to identify suspected infringement.

In this approach, people are presented with some limited details about their alleged infringement and encouraged to reach a settlement (this could cost hundreds of pounds). People who refuse can be threatened with court action, although such action almost never occurs and those cases that have been attempted in the past were not successful due to weak evidence. Put another way, the letters largely rely on scaring people into paying.

The latest example comes from a company called Voltage Holdings LLC (Voltage Pictures), which has been using such methods in other countries to tackle suspected movie pirates for a long time. However, before such firms can do this, they first have to match IP addresses, times and dates of the alleged activity to account owners, which requires them to submit a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO) to the court.

The NPO forces ISP to release the details of any associated subscribers (e.g. name, address etc.), which is precisely what happened to Virgin Media in July 2021. TorrentFreak reports that a commercial law firm, Lewis Silkin LLP, has now begun sending out the aforementioned letters, which targets those who pirated a mediocre film called ‘Ava‘ – starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell.

Recipients of these letters are then given just 14 days to respond to Lewis Silkin with their proposals. Customers at a number of other UK ISPs are also understood to have been targeted, although we don’t yet know which ones (such things are usually limited to the biggest players).

Extract from Voltage’s Letter

This letter assumes that you, as the account holder for the infringing IP Address, were the user of the relevant device on the dates and times at which Ava was shared without the consent of VOLTAGE. The purpose of this letter is therefore to give you an opportunity to admit or deny that your broadband account was used via BitTorrent in relation to Ava on the occasion specified above.

Since the file-sharing is unlawful, VOLTAGE is entitled to bring court proceedings against you if it can show on the balance of probabilities that you are the person who engaged in the file-sharing or if you authorized or allowed someone else to do so using your broadband connection.

This claim would be brought in a specialist civil court called the Intellectual Property Enterprise court, where liability is determined on the balance of probabilities. The onus would be on VOLATGE to prove these allegations of infringement.”

Naturally, such letters can only target the bill payer for a broadband service, which is itself often shared among many friends, family and visitors via a local WiFi network. All of that makes it incredibly difficult to identify the responsible individual. At the same time, the data itself can sometimes also be incorrect (e.g. spoofed IP addresses and slight errors in the logs / timings) and may thus end up targeting the wrong connections / accounts.

As we said earlier, such campaigns don’t have a terribly strong history of success in the UK. The courts have also previously warned such firms to be very careful about the use of threatening language, given that those being targeted are not yet proven to be guilty of what they are accused.

Other test cases have also been thrown out due to the poor quality of evidence involved. As a result of all this, the copyright trolls tend to rely on people coughing up cash of their own accord (i.e. admitting guilt), since the cost of actually pursuing subscribers through the courts, given the seemingly low chance of success, often isn’t worth the risk.

Generally, if you know or believe yourself to be innocent of this kind of allegation, then it’s best to discuss the matter with Citizens Advice before responding and read the Speculative Invoicing Handbook. Likewise, if you want a solicitor’s help then Michael Coyle from Lawdit may be able to assist.

UPDATE 16th Sept 2021

We’ve had a comment from Virgin Media.

A Virgin Media spokesperson said:

“We take the privacy and security of our customers’ data very seriously. Virgin Media will only ever disclose customer information to third parties if required by law to do so through a valid Court order.

In this case a Court order was successfully granted to Voltage Pictures which means a very small number of Virgin Media customers may now receive correspondence from this organisation.

Any customer who receives a letter should note that the Court has not yet made any findings of copyright infringement against them. This would be a matter to be determined by the Court in any subsequent claim.”

Take note that the word “small” is a relative term for a provider with millions of customers. Small could be a few thousand, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands.

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Customers of Virgin Media and Other UK ISPs Hit by Piracy Letters UPDATE