Copyright Trolling, An Empirical Study

44 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2014 Last revised: 25 Aug 2014

See all articles by Matthew Sag

Matthew Sag

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: August 24, 2014


This detailed empirical and doctrinal study of copyright trolling presents new data showing the astonishing rate of growth of multi-defendant John Doe litigation in United States district courts over the past decade. It also presents new evidence of the association between this form of litigation and allegations of infringement concerning pornographic films. Multi-defendant John Doe lawsuits have become the most common form of copyright litigation in several U.S. districts, and in districts such as the Northern District of Illinois, copyright litigation involving pornography accounts for more than half of new cases filed.

This Article highlights a fundamental oversight in the extant literature on copyright trolls. Paralleling discussions in patent law, scholars addressing the troll issue in copyright have applied status-based definitions to determine who is, and is not, a troll. This Article argues that the definition should be conduct-based. Multi-defendant John Doe litigation should be counted as part of copyright trolling whenever these suits are motivated by a desire to turn litigation into an independent revenue stream. Such litigation, when initiated with the aim of turning a profit in the courthouse as opposed to seeking compensation or deterring illegal activity, reflects a kind of systematic opportunism that fits squarely within the concept of litigation trolling. This Article shows that existing status-based definitions of copyright trolls are inapt because they do not account for what is now the most widely practiced from of trolling.

In addition to these empirical and theoretical contributions, this Article explores the features of copyright doctrine that have facilitated the recent explosion in trolling litigation in the form of litigation against John Does. In particular, it shows how statutory damages and permissive joinder make multi-defendant John Doe litigation possible and why allegations of infringement concerning pornographic films are particularly well-suited to this model.

Keywords: Copyright trolls, Patent trolls, Copyright litigation, Empirical legal studies, Statutory damages, Joinder, Pornography

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Sag, Matthew, Copyright Trolling, An Empirical Study (August 24, 2014). Iowa Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Matthew Sag (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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