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20,000 porn-watchers' addresses mistakenly released in German court: lawyer

About 20,000 people who watched pornography on a U.S.-based website have had their names and addresses mistakenly released by a court and are now being ordered to pay fines, a lawyer said Friday.

Cease and desist letters were sent to people whose IP addresses were detected on the porn site Redtube after a German court released their personal details in a copyright infringement case.

Law firm Urmann + Collegen (U+C) was acting on behalf of clients who said their copyrighted videos had been uploaded to the explicit website without permission.

U+C applied to the court to order German Internet service provider Deutsche Telekom to release the names of tens of thousands of people who had watched these videos. The law firm then sent out between 10,000 and 20,000 letters, each with a fine of 250 euros (approximately $343).

But several lawyers have claimed the court made a mistake. They said the judges made the order because they wrongly believed the videos had been downloaded, thus breaking German copyright law, rather than streamed.

"This is a huge mistake, and the fact that these people's private details were released is very worrying," said Christian Solmecke, who is a partner at Cologne-based law firm Wilde Beuger Solmecke.

The court case dates back to August and the cease and desist letters were sent out last week, Solmecke said. All of the affected people are thought to live in Germany.

Solmecke is representing 600 people involved in the case and has instructed them not to pay their fines.

He told NBC News that in the past five days his practice has received 2,000 calls from people who viewed porn on the site and are outraged that their names and address were released.

The Cologne court where the judges made the order said that U+C were acting on behalf of Swiss copyright protection firm The Archive.

The court said U+C initially made 89 applications, each containing between 600 and 1,000 IP addresses for which they wanted the corresponding names and postal addresses.

It said 62 of these were successful and 27 were rejected.

Solmecke said the reason for this was that several different judges dealt with the cases, and that some of them understood the difference between streaming and downloading videos and others did not.

He said the case sets a dangerous precedent.

"If this decision stands, we could have the situation where you are watching a video of Robbie Williams on YouTube that, unknown to you, was uploaded without permission -- and you could be sent a fine," he said.

"The court in Cologne will be getting a lot of appeals. I think they will be very busy."

Several other lawyers have been quoted in German media criticizing the ruling.

Court spokesman Christian Hopper said the court was taking the matter seriously and is accepting appeals from anybody who feels their details have been released wrongly.

"People have a right to know if the decision was correct or not," he said. "The decision will be reconsidered in every case where there is an application.

"I cannot praise or criticize the decisions of the court but we are aware of what the critics are saying and we are taking this seriously," Hopper said. 

He added that the law firms were able to monitor the website and obtain people's IP addresses using software.

Following the case, many people whose details were released have been emailed and asked to pay additional fines by other companies which hold the copyright to pornographic videos, Hopper said. These have no backing in German law and are therefore fraudulent, he said.

U+C has confirmed that it sent the cease and desist letters, but would not say how many. It would not comment further on the ruling.

Following the case it posted a notice on its website warning people not to pay the "fraudulent" fines requested by other companies via email.

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