A California law student is suing her ex-boyfriend of six months in a federal Los Angeles court for posting nude selfies and a sexually explicit video of the woman on pornographic websites. The woman has filed the lawsuit under a pseudonym to protect her privacy and is seeking damages for posting the videos and pictures without her permission in violation of U.S. copyright law. She is also seeing damages for emotional distress.
The case is being handled by K&L Gates, a large law firm in Pittsburg. The firm began working on its Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project since September 2014. There are roughly 50 lawyers involved in the project. This case is among the first lawsuits filed by the firm, which is working with roughly 100 other victims of what is being called "revenge porn." This term defines a type of online harassment pertaining to the unpermitted posting of sexually explicit material typically involving a former partner.
The project is being headed by David A. Bateman, a partner in the firm's Seattle office, and Elisa J. D'Amico, a litigator who specializes in technology and internet law issues in the firm's Miami office. The firm obtains a majority of its clients through the project's website or referrals from two national advocacy groups for victims of "revenge porn," the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and Without My Consent.
The program advises victims as to what legal steps can be taken to sue for damages and works with victims to consider the pros and cons of reporting online abuse to prosecutors. In instances where the victims have taken nude selfies or videos of themselves, lawyers use the protections offered by federal copyright law to demand that the websites take down the images or risk being sued. Most commercial pornography websites will comply with the request to avoid any legal lawsuits.
If a victim wants to bring a federal copyright lawsuit, they must register any videos or photos with the United States Copyright office. In sum, in order to sue under a copyright violation, a victime must publicly register the photo or video that has been violated. A real "Catch-22." Mr. Bateman stated, "Copyright is not designed to deal with revenge porn, it just happens to give you a remedy, but it's not perfect and won't be available in all situations."
These lawsuits are not without precedence. In 2014, a jury in Texas awarded a "revenge porn" victim $500,000.00, one of the largest verdicts for this type of violation. The woman in this case claimed that she had suffered emotional distress as well.
The problem is being tackled by states, regulatory agencies and federal prosecutors alike. Over the course of the last year, twelve states have enacted laws criminalizing this type of activity, including Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois and Pennsylvania. In addition, Federal Trade Commission settled with an operator of a porn website, requiring him to stop sharing and posting nude photos and videos of people that have not consented to their use. Finally, federal prosecutors are going after the perpetrators by charging them with online stalking or attempting to access another person's online account or computer.
The statistics on "revenge porn" are unknown. Most victims are often unwilling to come forward out of fear of bringing attention to their videos and photos. Victims also may be hesitant to file a legal action as they worry that a jury may not be sympathetic.
Regardless, the problem is being addressed and strides are being taken to punish perpetrators and restore justice to victims. I believe this is only the beginning stages of this problem and it will continue to morph and become more complex as the law develops and addresses these very real problems.