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Minnesota lawyer sentenced to 14 years for using porn as bait for copyright lawsuits

Minneapolis attorney Paul Hansmeier and his partner allegedly uploaded pornos to file-sharing sites and sued people who attempted to download them.

Minneapolis attorney Paul Hansmeier and his partner allegedly uploaded pornos to file-sharing sites and sued people who attempted to download them. Calos Gonzales, Star Tribune

Starting around September of 2010, Minneapolis lawyer Paul Hansmeier and his partner, John Steele, made their bread and butter off internet porn – albeit indirectly.

Hansmeier and Steele represented people who held copyrights to certain porn videos. Their job was to monitor file-sharing websites like Pirate Bay, find out the IP addresses of users who downloaded those videos, and then sue them for copyright infringement.

The lawyers would call their targets, send them letters, and threaten to take them for up to $150,000 until, inevitably, they’d settle, usually for something like $4,000. In general, nobody wanted to risk losing tens of thousands of dollars, and they certainly didn’t want word getting out they’d been caught downloading adult entertainment. 

But according to an indictment filed a little over two years ago, back in 2011, these lawyers decided to make their jobs a little easier. On April Fool's' Day of that year, they had an associate upload one of their copyright-holding clients’ movies directly to Pirate Bay. (It happened to be a film called Sexual Obsession by Heartbreaker Productions.)

By the end of the month, Hansmeier and Steele had caught over 70 users trying to download it and filed suit against them for stealing Heartbreaker’s goods… even though the lawyers had secretly been the ones to make it available to them in the first place. By December of the next year, they’d filed at least 200 lawsuits against more than 3,000 IP address holders for downloading movies the lawyer duo had allegedly posted on Pirate Bay and other websites.

From there, it was business as usual: aggressive lawyering with threats of expensive suits and possible public shaming, followed by hasty settlements.

Legally speaking, it’s not cool to use porn to fish for copyright lawsuits, and the indictment argues that there’s plenty of evidence to believe Hansmeier and Steele, both copyright lawyers, knew as much. As time went on, they assumed control of shell companies in order to distance their own names from the suits.

Hansmeier and Steele went on to allegedly form more shell companies in order to obtain additional porno copyrights. Starting in 2012, they even filmed some adult movies themselves, including ones called Five Fan Favorites and A Peek Behind the Scenes at the Show; both of those titles went straight to Pirate Bay without even being commercially released. Between 2010 and 2013, they personally made more than $3 million in copyright infringement settlement payments. Between the two lawyers, their entities, and their clients, it was actually closer to $6 million. 

Eventually, the courts caught on. In 2013, judges started dismissing the lawyers’ suits and subpoena requests, accusing them of “feigned ignorance,” “misstatements,” and “outright lies.” In 2016, they were charged with running a vast moneymaking scheme and lying to cover it up. Hansmeier, a 2007 University of Minnesota Law School graduate, pleaded guilty last year.

On Friday, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison by the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. That includes two years of supervised release and $1.5 million in restitution. Judge Joan Ericksen called him "smarter than all get-out," according to the Star Tribune, and that was part of the problem. 

“Today’s sentence for Paul Hansmeier is the just result for an attorney who abused his license to practice law and disgraced himself in so many ways,” FBI Minneapolis agent Jill Sanborn told the Duluth News Tribune. He'd used his expertise to "exploit" victims and "misuse his position of trust as an officer of the court." 

Steele, his partner, will likely be sentenced in July.