If you get a notice from a law firm telling you that you’ve violated US copyright law by “illegally” downloading a movie, and if that notice offers to let you out of the case for a payment of $1500 or so, you might want to think twice before you fork over the cash. According to a complaint filed in United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the law firm of Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver is part of a scheme to essentially shake down thousands of consumers by threatening to haul folks into court over bogus copyright claims. Just last Thursday, a federal magistrate ruled that the plaintiff could proceed with the suit, denying motions to dismiss filed on behalf of the law firm. According to the lawsuit, Dunlap typically files a single lawsuit, naming thousands of “John Does” from all over the country. It then petitions the court to issue subpoenas to Internet Service Providers to get contact information for the alleged infringers. Those lucky folks then get a nasty letter demanding $1500 (which increases to $2500 if they don’t respond fast enough) to avoid getting involved in the pending litigation. The deceptive part, according to the complaint, is that the firm has no intention of actually proceeding with the case. It’s an interesting question and it poses some tough questions. While no one (well, at least most people) would like to see a court punish anyone who commits extortion, a person shouldn’t be able to haul a lawyer into court for doing his job. If the underlying claim is disputed, it’s not illegal to make a settlement demand. And in close cases, I’d like to see the court give the lawyers (and their clients) some leeway. The magistrate probably agrees. While she denied the motion to dismiss, she noted that the issue could be resolved on summary judgment once more evidence is developed. Stay tuned.