Perfect 10 CEO: Porno troll or copyright crusader (or both)?

By Alison Frankel
May 11, 2012

I was planning to write a sober analysis of a new copyright infringement complaint filed in Manhattan by the adult entertainment (read: naked pics of beautiful women) site Perfect 10. I figured I would examine whether the recent 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Viacom’s case against YouTube and Google would help Perfect 10′s claims that the hipster blog site Tumblr consistently refused to take down unauthorized uploads of Perfect 10 photos, even after receiving infringement notices. Then I got a call from Perfect 10 CEO Norman Zada, responding to a message I left with his lawyers at Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard. Zada convinced me that a straight story wouldn’t adequately capture Perfect 10′s copyright campaign.

Zada isn’t a lawyer but he said he might as well be, considering that Perfect 10′s main business these days is litigating to enforce its copyrights. There was once a Perfect 10 magazine and a startup video operation, but now there’s just a subscription-based website that, by Zada’s admission, isn’t doing very well. “Perfect 10 is a shell,” he said. “We have died.”

Blame, he said, lies mostly with the Internet sites he has spent the last eight years litigating against – including Google, Amazon, Microsoft, RapidShare, Megaupload and the Russian site Yandex – and the companies that he believes facilitate Internet copyright theft. “There is a massive attack on copyrights in this country,” Zada said. “Over $1 trillion of copyrighted materials are being stolen on the Internet” by sites that “have an incentive to use stolen materials uploaded by anonymous users,” he said. Zada placed some additional responsibility on federal judges who don’t regard the Internet copyright crisis to be as dire as he does, but he said they’re overworked. “We need twice as many judges. We need Internet police,” he said. “I am so pro-copyright, and I’m just so amazed at what is going on.”

I pointed out that companies dedicated only to enforcing IP rights usually get tagged with the troll label, as Perfect 10 frequently has been (including in court filings). Zada is accustomed to that accusation, but said he doesn’t enjoy copyright litigation. He and Perfect 10 also don’t find it profitable, according to Zada. The company has settled cases against Microsoft, Amazon, Megaupload and RapidShare, but according to Zada, his legal fees have slightly outpaced what he’s recovered in settlements. “If our fees were $18 million, settlements were probably $16 million,” he said.

The site’s most famous case, an epic eight-year battle with Google that went up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals twice, ended with a whimper on Apr. 27, when U.S. District Judge Howard Matz of federal court in Los Angeles dismissed the case with prejudice on a joint motion by Perfect 10′s lawyers at the Law Offices of Jeffrey N. Mausner and Dion-Kindem & Crockett and Google’s counsel at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. Reports on Perfect 10′s retreat cited Matz’s order that the company produce financial records, but Zada said he “walked away because we did not feel we could win before this judge.”

Google’s lawyers at Quinn Emanuel, he said, prevented Perfect 10 from presenting a streamlined explanation of what Zada considered a simple case, in which Google allegedly refused to purge Perfect 10 images despite repeated take-down notices from Zada’s company. (“I send the best notices ever,” Zada told me.) That’s bad news for Perfect 10. Yandex, the European site Zada’s company sued earlier this year, has hired Quinn Emanuel. So has Tumblr. Rachel Kassabian of Quinn Emanuel confirmed the representations and noted that Zada “likes to talk to the press.” She declined additional comment. A Tumblr spokesperson also declined to comment.

I asked Zada why he’s gotten so little support from mainstream content producers if it’s true that he’s out there battling on behalf of all copyright holders. (He said he did get amicus support from mainstream movie studios in one appeal.) “I can’t say why I’m alone in this,” he told me. “Very few people have the resources.”

Zada said he’s got something big in the works, but added that he can’t fight by himself forever. “I’m funding what’s basically a bankrupt company,” Zada told me. “I’m going to have to quit eventually, too.”

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