Evan Stone's Battle Against Porn Pirates

A Denton lawyer devotes his life to fighting America's porn thiefs.

By Patrick Michels

published: April 21, 2011

The scary letters started coming for Alex last fall, at his childhood home on a quiet suburban street about an hour north of San Francisco. He'd been sued in federal court, the letters said—in Dallas, of all places—for illegally sharing a pornographic film on a website called gay-torrents.net.

Just a year out of high school, still living at home, he'd been taking community college classes and, among other extracurriculars, had been quietly sharing gay porn online. Specifically, a copyrighted film called Missing—a frequently all-nude thriller featuring tanned topless dudes running through Barcelona's criminal underworld followed by dark strangers whose shirts cling shut by a single button.

It's the sort of thing you generally hope to keep private, and the sort of thing Alex probably didn't expect his parents, his friends or a federal court to know was on his computer.

But the film's producers had mounted a new fight against people stealing their work, rounding up the unique Internet protocol (IP) addresses for computers that were sharing copies of their films, and tracking those to the people registered to those accounts. Alex was one of the first to get stung.

The letters—first from his Internet provider, then from the Denton, Texas, Law Offices of Evan Stone—said that with a prompt reply, he could remain anonymous in the lawsuit. For a $1,500 settlement, however, he could make the case disappear altogether.

Evan Stone, an obscure North Texas junior attorney, had sent similar threat letters to dozens of other Alexes around the country, and the foreboding language made you think twice about tossing it with the junk mail. "If you choose not to respond at all," reads one follow-up letter, "we will have no choice but to name you as a defendant in these proceedings, serve you with a federal summons, and seek the maximum monetary judgment under the applicable laws."

Alex, who declined an interview for this story, probably would have preferred keeping his private life to himself. But he suffered a worse fate than being outed as a porn thief: The letters came to his mom. She was the household's account holder of record, and she refused to pay up.

Just before 8 on the morning of July 17, a computer at Remove Your Content, LLC in Irving was busy downloading Missing, piecing it together with BitTorrent, a file-sharing technology that grabs chunks of a file, in whatever order it can, from computers around the world. Chase scene after sex scene, bits of the movie file streamed in, and the computer in Texas logged addresses for everyone it downloaded from.

It logged 19 computers delivering the movie that morning—including Alex's—bundled them with 46 IP addresses collected two days earlier, and tossed them all into a suit that Evan Stone filed that very day in Dallas federal court: Lucas Entertainment, Inc. v. [John] Does 1-65.

It was the first of many suits filed by Stone, against thousands of anonymous defendants listed only by their IP addresses—because that's all the attorney knew about them—for pirating porn. Not just any pornography, either, but big-budget and name-brand titles, spoofs like This Ain't Avatar XXX and the classic Debbie Does Dallas.

It was a novel approach, suing thousands of anonymous defendants at a time, a strategy used by just a handful of lawyers around the country. Quicker than he could add defendants to his mailing list, though, Stone attracted enemies: Internet freedom advocates, technology lawyers, the ACLU and even lawyers for the porn industry, each with their own complaints.

They must have wondered, who is this Evan Stone? For a lawyer, he brought an awfully playful quality to his work, like his choice to name exactly 1,337 defendants in one of his most recent cases—an insidery nod to "LEET"-speak, the secret-handshake hacker language where numbers stand in for letters every now and then (1,337 translates to "LEET," "n00b" means "noob," etc.).

Defendants and lawyers who tried to research Stone online would find he shared a name with a legendary porn star, also from Dallas. Some were even convinced the Evan Stone suing pirates over the original Debbie Does Dallas was the same Evan Stone who starred in 2007's Debbie Does Dallas...Again.

To many, though, there was nothing mysterious about Stone's cases. For threatening to unmask his anonymous defendants in court, Stone was nothing more than a blackmail artist. Defense attorneys derided the 34-year-old's practice as a half-baked get-rich-quick-scheme. Others found a single word to cut down Stone and the handful of others like him—a term as pejorative and dismissive among lawyers as it is among bloggers. Stone, they said, was a troll.

Below a piece about Stone on the tech blog ArsTechnica, one commenter says, "Mr. Stone, bite my shiny metal ass."

"I hope some wacko puts a .308 round through this guys head..." another writes.

Years after squads of copyright enforcement lawyers shut down Napster, sued grandmothers for downloading pop music and threw the book at The Pirate Bay (the world's biggest Torrent search site), these John Doe suits opened a new front in the anti-pirate battle. It was a strategy heretofore untested in court, largely because suing thousands of anonymous individuals—who might have just left their wireless network unprotected, or let somebody else use their computer—could look like a real dick move.

Which, to some pornographers, didn't sound so bad at all.

So far this year, the courts have been rough on Evan Stone.

Following the lead of a West Virginia court, federal Judge Royal Furgeson has stripped thousands of defendants from Stone's cases—all but the first John Doe in each suit—suggesting that if Stone wants to re-file the cases, he can do them individually next time, and pay $350, the court's standard filing fee, for each. Within weeks, Stone dropped all 14 of his cases in Furgeson's court.

I call Stone and tell him I'd like to put a face to his threat letters. He suggests meeting somewhere in Denton, away from his office, which, he says, looks "like a poor man's dorm room." He'd rather be judged by his legal work than his ability to pick up after himself, he says.

A few days later, he changes his mind.

I end up in front of an old bank building in Denton. After a minute or so, Stone emerges in gray dress pants, an open-collared shirt and a pair of black Pumas streaked with neon pink, blue and green. A well-manicured brown beard frames his bald head, lending a jovial, god-of-wine quality to his face.

We take a clunky elevator to the second floor, where Stone crosses the hall and opens a door to a small, windowless room, empty but for a folding table and a laptop. No phone, no file cabinets, no court documents.

"As you can see," he says, waving across the empty room, "You've caught me at a real sort of time of transition."

He tells me he's giving up his practice, and it doesn't strike me as a huge surprise, since all of his cases just got cut off at the knees.

He's going into sustainable agriculture instead, he says.

Having spent plenty of time in college-town Denton, I know better than to be surprised by this either.

"As far as I'm concerned," Stone says, "the rest of the interview can be about sustainable farming."

While he watches my reaction, I mull how I'm going to sell this new story to my editors. Then Stone casually flips open a door in the corner. He leads me into another room, furnished with a futon, a desk and a lamp. There's a third room through that one, even more cluttered, with a pair of desks, laptops, file cabinets and white boards scribbled with legal notes.

It's April Fool's Day, Stone says. And a sucker just happened to drop in.

I'm still scratching out the word "farming" when Stone launches into a rapid-fire update on his practice, his latest attempts to subpoena pirates' names and addresses from Internet companies. If his practice looked on paper like it was dead in the water, to hear Stone tell it, he's only just begun.

"I'm not trying to ruin anybody's life. I'm trying to recoup revenue lost to piracy," he says.

As a filmmaker and a musician, Stone says he can sympathize with the producers he works for. As a database programmer, he understands the technology. "I was born to do this shit," Stone says. "I eat, sleep, breathe, shit this stuff."

In one big way, though, he's reached a turning point.

"Fuck the adult industry," he says. "You can quote me on that."

He's tired of that whole game, he says; porn isn't the sort of art he's interested in protecting. "Any time you're taking a case on a contingency fee, you've got to have your heart in it," he says. "I could go into oil and gas tomorrow and make a pretty penny. But that's not what I care about."

He says he's just signed three new "mainstream" clients. Indie films, not porn.

What Stone does care about, he tells me over the next few hours, are three things: protecting artists' livelihoods, providing for his family—he gets about 45 percent of the settlements—and having a pretty good time.

The evidence of that last point hangs from a hook on his office door: a green terrycloth bathrobe. He wears it, he says, "If I feel like I have to put it on, if I'm really engaged with something."

He rarely puts it on at the office, but, it turns out, Stone has acquired a reputation for wearing robes about town, at restaurants or to shows in Denton clubs. His fashion choice may smack of Lebowskian stoner cool, but Stone says it dates all the way back to his high school days, when he'd been desperate for extra layers on a vacation and decided to put on his host's bathrobe.

I ask him why he wears them everywhere, and he answers like it's a parable, slowly reeling out a story about a man who'd asked him to explain the robe. Stone recalls holding out an end of the belt and asking the man to feel the fabric. "I said, 'Do you think you could get stressed wearing this?' And he said, 'No.'"

As we walk out of the office to continue our conversation over drinks, we pass through the empty room where, Stone assures me, the laptop and folding table had been put there strictly for effect.

For a blackmailing, ambulance-chasing troll, it's hard not to like the guy.

Stone's story about farming wasn't all invention. For the first years of his life, in the mid-1970s, he lived in Indonesia, where his father had a can't-miss scheme to get rich farming rice. The plan was to use American equipment and simply outperform the locals, but the scheme didn't go quite the way Dad intended. "The workers wouldn't even unload the ships at the docks," Stone says. "They're like, 'No, that's gonna replace our jobs—fuck you Americans!'"

His father also cheated on his mom, Stone says, and his folks divorced when he was 2. He grew up in San Antonio loving computers, film and music, all of which stuck with him through his college years in Denton.

He studied film at the University of North Texas, and in the middle of his degree he spent a couple years as an exchange student in L.A. It was the late '90s, and extracurricular work took him to the sets of music video shoots for bands such as Metallica, Smash Mouth and Barenaked Ladies.

Along the way, he started a music distribution company of his own called corduroyred, built on a plan to sell music online—$1.50 for each mp3. He had seven bands signed on, and he recalls walking the streets of L.A., getting attention with the Rio mp3 player he carried around—the 32-megabyte model—demonstrating the latest in portable music technology with cuts from his bands.

It was also the golden age of Napster, though, when common wisdom said that music would be free forever. Stone's label lasted just under a year. Piracy sunk his business, he says. "Fuckin' Napster's out there," he says. "Why is anybody gonna pay me $1.50 for my song if they can find it on Napster too? So my vendetta against pirates has been building for years and years."

Stone came back to finish his degree in Denton. Along with some friends, he'd borrow a few cameras from the school and shoot live concert videos. "We'd go out and shoot these live shows, come home and edit it, find the best four songs and put it online," Stone recalls. "That was a lot of fun. I miss that."

He bounced between San Antonio and Denton for the next few years, with a grab bag of gigs substitute-teaching, programming software and hosting live trivia games in Austin. Somewhere along the way, he roomed with a circus performer who taught him how to spit fire. Stone shows me the photo on his phone. "Lamp oil," he says. "It's all the pros use." The trick is to purse your lips together and spew the lamp oil out as a fine mist—that's the way it'll ignite.

During those years after college, he reconnected with an old friend from San Antonio, a girl named Julie. They started playing music together, recording a few songs, and doing video editing. They'd been dating for a few months when Julie got pregnant—"when we got pregnant," Stone says, correcting himself—and they decided to get married.

When their daughter Astrid was born, they gave her his mother's maiden name, Stone, and he took the name too.

Which is funny now, given the ties people imagine between him and the porn star. When he first got out of law school, he went by "E.F. Stone"—precisely to avoid being confused with Evan Stone, the award-winning star of Space Nuts. "When I started taking on porn clients, I said, 'Oh, fuck it,'" he says. "I'll just let them be confused.

"I looked him up," he says. "His birth name wasn't Stone, either."

With a family to support, Stone decided it was time for a course correction. "I said, I want to do something that's interesting, and that I have a knack for, that'll let me make art that I want to make without worrying about whether there's an audience to pay for it," Stone recalls. He runs a music video and film production outfit with Julie called Wolfe-Stone Productions.

That's how he ended up in law school in 2007 at Texas Wesleyan, where he focused on entertainment and intellectual property. No lifelong dreams of being a lawyer, just a quick decision and no looking back.

"When I decide I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it," Stone says.

During law school he worked as a legal counsel at FUNimation Entertainment, the Flower Mound animation studio, where he led a small enforcement team that tracked down bootleg versions of their cartoons for sale or download online, then sent letters to pirates or their Internet providers, asking them to remove the pirated content.

In June 2010, the tech blog ArsTechnica wrote a piece about how the Virginia law firm of Dunlap Grubb & Weaver, calling itself the US Copyright Group, had singlehandedly dragged thousands more defendants into federal copyright suits than anyone ever had before, lumping defendants together, hundreds at a time, and urging them to settle for $1,500.

Another lawyer at FUNimation sent the link to Stone. "Wouldn't it be great if we could do this?" Stone recalls him asking.

Up till then, hardly anyone had been willing to go after individual BitTorrent pirates. The US Copyright Group's suits had all been on behalf of independent films and small studios. At FUNimation, Stone had some success contacting Internet providers directly and convincing them to suspend repeat BitTorrent offenders, but nobody—least of all an anime producer with a rabid, plugged-in fan base—had been interested in getting a Metallica-like reputation as a band that sued its fans.

"I hate hardly anybody," he says, "but when I think about pirates, I do tend to think about a lot of them as smarmy entitled little brats." BitTorrent infringement is the most egregious sort of piracy out there, Stone says, because it requires that everyone downloading a file also shares it with everyone else. But there weren't many lawyers equipped to fight it.

"It was a total no-brainer," Stone says, the best possible confluence of geek know-how, entertainment business and pirate-bustin' fervor. "I happen to have the perfect set of skills to do this. And I'm not an expert at anything, but I know a ton of tech shit, and I did all right in law school."

These were uncharted legal waters, though, and Stone needed the right client to get him there—and then it hit him.

"I said, you know what, I know a whole bunch of people whose shit is pirated all the time that don't give a fuck about bad press."

From moving pictures to DVDs, the porn industry had been at the cutting edge of each technological revolution, until this one. On the Internet, pornography was thriving, but you could totally bypass the industry trying to sell it. By 2004 it started to show in the porn studios' bottom lines.

YouPorn and other YouTube knockoff sites made homemade porn incredibly easy to find, while some users uploaded clips from big-studio productions right along with it.

Many studios' answer to the flood of low-quality amateur porn has been to make their products even slicker, driving costs higher to help them stand out—like the $3 million Pirates of the Caribbean porn parody Pirates (2005), the most expensive movie the industry had made up to that point.

BitTorrent, though, undercut that whole effort. Beginning in 2002, BitTorrent made it possible to share huge files like movies, software and big bundles of music, plucking little pieces of each file from computers all over the world. As soon as you download a piece of a file in BitTorrent, you start sharing it with everyone else. Years of estimates by research firms say BitTorrent traffic accounts for around one-third of all traffic on the Internet.

"Between the BitTorrent and the tube sites that contain illegal content, they've put a lot of people out of business, and others have lowered their revenues," says Larry Flynt Productions president Michael Klein. "It's putting a big crimp on the industry. If you don't do anything, you're just gonna watch your business whittle away."

From 2004 to 2009, the porn industry's revenues shrunk an estimated 40 percent. "That's pretty consistent with the downturn we took," says Quentin Boyer, a spokesman for Pink Visual, a porn distributor that's organized a pair of copyright protection retreats for the industry in the last year.

The biggest issue, Boyer says, is that people have the same attitude toward porn that they had to music 10 years ago, when Napster was king and iTunes wasn't around yet: Why not steal? "Can we get the public to think of porn as something that they're willing to pay for again? We'll see," Boyer says.

Each company's been taking a different tack against piracy, Boyer says, and there's still no consensus about how to make the pirates pay. Peer-to-peer piracy, like file sharing over BitTorrent, is worth fighting, he says, but at Pink Visual, the risk of losing their fans probably isn't worth it.

"We need to improve the industry's image," Boyer says. "The truth of it is that if [copyright enforcement] creates a mindset in the user where they're hesitant to download porn for free, that's great. If, on the other hand, it's, 'I always knew you guys were scumbags and now you're shaking me down,' that's bad."

Through his work at FUNimation, Stone knew a guy in Irving who did rights enforcement for the adult industry—he prefers to remain anonymous, Stone says, because he's received several death threats. "I was like, hey, you've been fighting for these studios for years now, doing whatever you can outside of court," Stone recalls. "Are any of your clients interested in taking this up a notch?"

As it turned out, some of them were, and Stone parlayed that connection into work for a handful of porn studios, most notably Larry Flynt Productions—parent company of the Hustler brand. Beginning last July, Stone filed a series of Doe suits in federal court in Dallas, one every couple of weeks, each against hundreds or thousands of defendants at a time. It may have been unconventional, but—even though he hasn't won a single case at trial—Stone is confident it worked.

Each suit was pretty much the same, but with a new set of IP addresses and a different title—670 Does for sharing Der Gute Önkel in one suit, 739 for sharing Young Harlots Foreign Exchange in the next. With the judge's go-ahead, Stone sent subpoenas to Internet providers, asking for names and addresses for the account-holder at each IP address, then sent letters to each of them, notifying them they'd been sued and offering to settle—an opportunity about 40 percent of the people he writes take him up on.

It was roughly the same formula followed by the US Copyright Group in D.C. that first inspired Stone. Rob Cashman, a Houston lawyer who represents Doe defendants, including some in Stone's cases, says there have been five lawyers really going after BitTorrent piracy around the country, in remarkably similar ways. "The joke is that they're plagiarizing each other," he says. "It's a cash machine for them. The goal for them is not to move to trial.

"When I first heard about it, I didn't think it was a real case. Think about it—you're suing 500 people for downloading. In federal court, you have to put the person accused at the keyboard at the time of infringement," he says, if you're going to win at trial.

Since none of these cases has made it that far, there's no sense in anyone paying a "settlement ransom," Cashman says—except, of course, to avoid being named in public.

Kamal Rowe, an IT worker who lives just outside Boston, had been reading about cases like this in a story on CNet.com when he got the letter from his Internet company, RCN, saying he'd been sued. Suddenly, Rowe found himself in a common predicament, trying to prove he wasn't a pirate at all, that his router had just been hijacked.

It took him a while to figure out just what he'd been accused of—which, according to court records, was illegally serving up a piece of Axel Braun's Barely Legal Schoolgirls No. 6.

"It was definitely embarrassing, to say the least," Rowe says. He's from Barbados originally, raised in a strongly Anglican household, where, he says, "pornography is a very taboo subject." His friends and family believed him when he reasoned that the problem was his new router, which wasn't password-protected.

Rowe decided to call Stone directly and recalls being impressed with how polite and easygoing the attorney was. "He seemed like a really cool guy," Rowe says.

Rowe bought a boilerplate "Motion to Quash" form, specifically for anonymously responding to Doe cases like his, for $20. He took it to the bank to have it notarized and mailed it off to the federal courthouse in Dallas. It became a moot point when Stone dropped the suit against Rowe and the other 634 John Does.

Though he hadn't been getting porn illegally, Rowe says the whole thing made him think twice about how he acquired new games and movies online—now, he says, he always pays for games. He even signed up for Netflix. "This time it wasn't me, but you don't ever want it to be you," he says.

In recognition of his zeal for pirate-hunting, the industry publication XBiz named Stone one of its "Newsmakers of 2010" and invited him to its annual convention in L.A. That's where he saw first-hand just how torn the industry was about going after pirates. He recalls getting a cold reception from industry lawyers, especially on the legal panel where he spoke.

"I realized that the whole legal community in the porn industry had soured the audience against me," Stone says. "Not really having any affinity for the porn business anyway, I saw no reason to stick around."

Back in Dallas, Stone's cases faced a trio of threats—first, the Internet providers began to balk at the long list of subpoenas generated by the Doe suits. They claimed it was too labor-intensive to look up who was using each of the addresses at a given time and started capping the number of look-ups they'd perform. "I know what's involved, and it's such horseshit for them to say they can't get this stuff," Stone says.

Time Warner Cable was one of the stingiest, offering to look up just three defendants' names per month, per lawyer—even though Stone had, for instance, 6,845 defendants to look up for Hustler's This Ain't Avatar XXX alone. Just when Stone was gearing up to tussle, Hustler pulled him back. "They wouldn't let me fight 'em," Stone says. Hustler, he says, was worried about its affiliate relationship with Time Warner Cable. "If you're gonna tie my hands that badly," Stone says, "I don't need you as a client."

Second, First Amendment groups argued against the suits on the ground that people who haven't been proven to break any laws are entitled to privacy online. One judge in Dallas even brought in a pair of lawyers to defend the Does in his court before Stone could send his subpoenas to Internet providers—an "unprecedented step," Stone complained in one court filing, saying the judge had passed up local lawyers and hand-picked a couple of groups that were "renowned for defending pirates."

Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer for Public Citizen, one of the free-speech groups, derided Stone's cases as "copyright enforcement on the cheap."

"When you sue 600 people, you're bound to make mistakes," Levy said at the time, shortly after he discovered Stone had sent out subpoenas in one case without the court's go-ahead. "He's a relatively junior lawyer, and junior lawyers make mistakes."

Finally, the John Doe cases buckled under a more basic question—whether it was proper to sue thousands of people in a single case. When a judge stripped all but one defendant from massive Doe lawsuits filed in West Virginia, the writing was on the wall.

Around that time, all except one of Stone's cases were funneled to Judge Royal Furgeson's court, where, in mid-February, the judge followed the West Virginia court's lead, cutting all but one defendant from each case.

Stone says Furgeson doesn't understand the technology—that Stone, unlike other litigators, had made a point of suing only defendants that shared the same copy of a film at the same time, in what's called a "swarm." He says Furgeson never even addressed that nuance. At the end of February, Stone dropped most of his cases in Furgeson's court. He dropped the last one—a case he'd taken on for FUNimation—a few weeks later.

Cashman says there are other pirate hunters who've been making small corrections so these cases hold up better in court, making sure they're suing defendants closer to where they live. As for Stone, Cashman says, "He'll probably hate me for saying that, but I think he's small fries now. I haven't seen any major activity from him."

Before the law catches up with the pirates, Cashman expects the porn industry to come up with a better distribution model—one that's cheap enough and simpler than BitTorrent. Cashman suggests something like a RedBox for porn—"a red light box," he jokes.

Stone, most of all, would like to see that happen—for indie filmmakers too. But until then, he'll be there to protect their rights.

Back at his office a week later, Stone is in his usual pirate-hunting get-up: black shorts, black sneakers and a black anime T-shirt.

The lights are off, and soft window light creeps in between the shadows of the rustling trees outside. Quiet electronic music from DJ Shadow plays through the speakers from Stone's iPhone on a Pandora station he's named "Angry for Litigating."

Between sips on a can of club soda, Stone trains a new office assistant and goes over questions about a court filing with his intern Kyle, a third-year law student at SMU.

He's riffing about "Grandpa Furgeson," "those fuckers" at Verizon, "those snakey fucks" at Time Warner—and one lawyer in particular, who's "such a fuck prick too."

He's hard at work on his latest strategy, one that'll help him fly a little below the radar on his pirate hunt: a subpoena provision in the Copyright Act that he's hoping will let him track down names and addresses without having to sue anyone first.

Still, the battle lines haven't changed, leaving Stone complaining about the underhanded way Internet providers are trying to dodge his subpoenas, arguing about how to define words like "network" and "through."

"You're not supposed to sue first and ask questions later—it's fucking retarded. But the ISP's have forced us into that situation," he says.

Then without using any names, he launches into the story of Alex, the young man named as a defendant in one of his suits. "We even had an admission from the kid's mother," Stone says. "She said, 'OK,' and then she reneged like a month later." When Mom didn't pay up, Stone had the summons issued in Alex's name.

And maybe Mom made a smart move. As Cashman points out, there's never been a judgment against any of the thousands of Doe defendants yet.

But Stone's hanging on the word "yet."

"I could just move from one defendant's jurisdiction to the next around the whole fucking country until somebody comes to their senses," he says. "And there's no shortage of pirates."