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DirecTV turns to state courts for piracy suits

In the past year, satellite television giant DirecTV has fought back against video piracy, filing thousand of lawsuits in federal court.

In recent weeks, the battle has spilled over to Florida's state courts, with hundreds of lawsuits similar to the federal ones popping up at courthouses in dozens of counties.

Some defense lawyers say DirecTV isn't doing well in federal court, so the company is testing out a new venue, hoping state circuit judges will be more sympathetic to the company's blanket approach to filing suit against almost anyone thought to be pirating it signal.

DirecTV officials deny they are losing in federal court, saying the move to state courts was designed to spread the workload among the hundreds of state circuit judges, instead of burdening the 40 or so federal district judges in Florida.

"Our resolve has not changed," said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer. "We are ready, able and willing to pursue these cases in either court."

But state court could turn out to be a blessing for the defense attorneys, said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Jonathan Yellin, who has represented several people sued by DirecTV.

In federal court, the lawyers make much of their argument in written court filings, Yellin said. In state court, there are a lot more hearings where all the lawyers show up to state their positions as the case progresses toward trial, Yellin said.

"It's a lot more work for them in state court," Yellin said. "They'll have to keep showing up for every little hearing in each case. That can be tough, and expensive, if you file hundreds of suits."

Mercer could not say how many of the more than 15,000 people DirecTV has sued across the country have settled or had their case dismissed. Most cases are still active, slowly moving toward trial. None of the cases, however, has gone to trial.

"There will be more cases filed in state and federal courts, as more defendants are identified," Mercer said.

DirecTV uses access cards, similar to credit cards, to let its 11.5-million subscribers view as many as 220 channels. Back in the 1990s, video pirates used illegally modified cards to get the signal. The illegal cards sold on the black market for about $100.

In early 2001, DirecTV fired back with a blow that has gone down in pirating lexicon as "Black Sunday." The company transmitted an electronic counter measure that rendered the illegal access cards useless.

The company then targeted Web sites that offered devices that let users reprogram the cards, according to the lawsuits.

In May 2001, law officers and DirecTV officials made three raids on Internet companies in California. They seized millions of dollars worth of illegal devices, the lawsuits state. They also unearthed more than 100,000 credit card receipts. The company used those receipts to track down customers who purchased the access devices.

DirecTV sent letters telling them to stop using the devices and to pay damages, which started at about $3,500. Those who didn't pay face the suits that seek $10,000 for each device purchased.

Defense attorneys have argued that the devices have legitimate uses, such as encryption and computer security. And some people just like to fool around with high-tech gadgets.

Also, the lawyers argue, some of the people caught up in DirecTV's net never purchased one of the devices. Someone stole their credit card, or another family member made the purchase, they say.

"Whether it's state or federal court, it's still hard for them to prove that all these people intended to steal their signal," Yellin said.