Cable giants step up piracy battle by interrogating Montreal software developer and searching his home
‘The whole experience was horrifying,’ TVAddons founder says of court-sanctioned search
Canadian cable companies have ratcheted up their war on piracy by launching a new legal battle. The effort has already seen Bell, Rogers and Quebecor's Videotron search a Montreal software developer's home and interrogate him for more than nine hours.
"The whole experience was horrifying," says Adam Lackman, founder of TVAddons and defendant in a copyright infringement lawsuit launched by the television giants. "It felt like the kind of thing you would have expected to have happened in the Soviet Union."
Telecoms and content creators Bell, Rogers and Videotron began their piracy battle last year by filing a lawsuit against Canadian dealers who sell "free TV" Android boxes — devices that can be used to stream pirated content.
Now the companies are also targeting Lackman and TVAddons — a library of hundreds of apps known as add-ons. Once downloaded on the Android box or a computer with added software, some of the add-ons — such as Exodus and 1Channel — allow people easy access to pirated movies, TV shows and even live television.
In their statement of claim filed in Federal Court on June 2, the plaintiffs allege that by developing and making TVAddons available to the public, Lackman contravened the Copyright Act.
The suit includes a long list of programming allegedly made freely available via TVAddons including Bell's Game of Thrones and Rogers' Sportsnet.
In his defence, Lackman argues TVAddons doesn't host pirated content but instead connects users to sources already available online, so it serves as nothing more than a search engine.
On June 9, the telecoms got an Anton Piller order, a civil search warrant that gives a plaintiff access to a defendant's home, without notice, to search for and seize relevant evidence before it can be destroyed.
A Federal Court judge would later declare the Anton Piller order in this case "unlawful," but that was weeks after a group of men arrived at Lackman's door at 8 a.m. on June 12.
Lackman says the group included a bailiff, two computer technicians, an independent counsel and a lawyer representing Bell, Rogers and Videotron.
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According to court documents, the group stayed for 16 hours and the plaintiffs' lawyer and independent counsel interrogated Lackman for more than nine hours. He was given a break for dinner and to speak to his lawyer, who was present.
Lackman was "not permitted to refuse to answer questions" and his lawyer wasn't permitted to counsel him in his answers.
"Any time I would question the process, they would threaten me with contempt of court proceedings," says Lackman.
Besides seizing personal items such as his computer and phone, Lackman says the plaintiffs' lawyer and independent counsel forced him to hand over passwords for his email and social media accounts.
Order 'null and void'
But on June 29, Lackman had reason to be hopeful he'd get his possessions back after a Federal Court judge declared the Anton Piller order "null and void" and that all seized items be returned.
According to court documents, the judge said the search was supposed to be conducted between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. but instead lasted until midnight.
The judge also said the defendant was treated unfairly during the interrogation and wasn't offered "any of the protections normally afforded to litigants in such circumstances."
He added that "the most egregious part of the questioning" was when the plaintiffs' lawyer asked Lackman to spill information about other people running operations similar to TVAddons.
The judge said the purpose of the order was to preserve existing evidence, not hunt for new evidence.
He also concluded that the plaintiffs' legal team used the order to try to shut down TVAddons.
"I am of the view that its true purpose was to destroy the livelihood of the defendant, deny him the financial resources to finance a defence to the claim made against him," the judge wrote.
"The defendant has demonstrated that he has an arguable case that he is not violating the [Copyright] Act," the judge continued, adding that by the plaintiffs' own estimate, only about one per cent of Lackman's add-ons were allegedly used to pirate content.
However, Lackman's belongings still haven't been returned. Nor can he access the TVAddons website or its social media accounts, which were also seized as part of the original order.
That's because Bell, Rogers and Videotron have appealed the court decision and a Federal Court of Appeal judge has ruled that until the appeal can be heard, Lackman will get nothing back.
The appeal judge said the issue isn't the fact the number of alleged copyright-infringing add-ons is small, but rather that TVAddons "targets a market of users seeking to knowingly access copyrighted materials without authorization."
The plaintiffs' law firm, Smart & Biggar, said it couldn't comment on the case at this point and that the appeal hearing will likely take place this fall.
As for Lackman, he plans to continue his defence. "At this point, there is no choice but to fight," he said in a written statement to CBC News.
To help pay the legal bills, he's trying to raise money on the fundraising site Indiegogo.
Lackman has also set up a new TVAddons website and Twitter account and tells CBC News his add-ons are still up and running.