March 29, 2021 Articles

What the Story of a “Copyright Troll” Tells Us about Ethical Lawyering

A refresher on applicable rules and an appeal for lawyers to follow the rules to the letter in the interest of themselves, their clients, and our profession.

By Alexander Prunka
Lawyers who take on too many cases run the risk violating their ethical obligations.

Lawyers who take on too many cases run the risk violating their ethical obligations.

Pexels | Ellie Burgin

In recent years, it seems that the public has become more acutely interested in the conduct of lawyers, with the worst of that conduct finding its way to the headlines for all to see. Perhaps the best way to insulate yourself from the risk of ending up in the news for the wrong reasons is to avoid the temptation to even slightly bend the ethics and professionalism rules. The story of Richard Liebowitz, an infamous “copyright troll,” offers an apt cautionary tale.

Liebowitz’s Prolific Practice

After passing the New York bar exam in 2015, Liebowitz wasted no time in building a prolific intellectual property litigation practice. In the Southern District of New York alone, he filed nearly 1,300 copyright infringement cases between 2016 and July of 2020. He filed thousands of additional cases in other jurisdictions. In the 15 days between March 11 and March 26, 2020, as the pandemic initially swept the United States, he filed 51 individual copyright suits in federal courts. Of course, simply filing a lot of cases is not grounds for discipline.

In October 2018, a court noted that of the 700-plus copyright actions Liebowitz filed to that date, over 500 were “voluntarily dismissed, settled, or otherwise disposed of prior to any merits-based litigation.” Some of these cases were likely settled because of Liebowitz’s “copyright troll” strategy of pursuing settlements priced just low enough that it was less expensive and less burdensome for a defendant to settle the claim rather than litigate. But a review of decisions shows that a substantial minority (here, several hundred) of Liebowitz’s cases did proceed to merits litigation, suggesting that many claims were at least plausible. 

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