Lawmakers and advocates silhouetted during a 2013 news conference announcing California’s revenge porn bill.
Image: AP

A federal judge in California last week ordered a man to pay nearly $6.5 million in damages to his ex-girlfriend for allegedly distributing naked photos and videos of her online. The woman’s attorney is calling it one of the largest non-celebrity revenge porn cases, according to the Los Angeles Times. Experts say it sets a strong precedent for future cases of nonconsensual porn.

The default decision was issued against the defendant, David Elam II, after he failed to show in court. In 2012, Elam and the woman, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, started dating in Los Angeles. After Elam moved to Virginia, they continued in a long-distance relationship, and Doe sent him “sexually explicit photos and videos of herself,” according to the Times. Eventually, the relationship soured. The Times reports:

After their breakup in May 2013, Elam called the woman and “threatened to ruin her life,” she alleged in her complaint. He then used suggestive photographs of her to create a profile on online dating site OkCupid, distributing her phone number and address while encouraging users to send sexual images of themselves, the complaint said.

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Doe received dozens of messages in response, including one from a man who said he was en route to her home. Elam also reportedly posted explicit photos and videos of her “on several pornography websites and another dating website,” says the Times.

In the meantime, Doe got to copyrighting her breasts. This was before California’s law criminalizing nonconsensual porn took effect in early 2014. Her best defense was sending “her nude photos to the United States Copyright Office to have them copyrighted so she could send cease-and-desist letters to the websites who posted them,” as the New York Post puts it. At one point, she filed a criminal suit against Elam, but it was dropped, as there is no federal law criminalizing nonconsensual porn.

This recent state-level decision was enabled in part by California’s relatively new revenge porn law. “The award covers $3 million in both compensatory and punitive damages, as well as $450,000 in damages for spreading copyrighted images,” reports the Times. Doe was represented by The Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project (CCRLP), which provides pro-bono representation in cases like this one. This ruling follows an $8.9 million verdict last year in another nonconsensual porn case that was similarly brought by CCRLP; it was the largest settlement in a non-celebrity case of its kind. (The elephant in the room here being the $140 million Hulk Hogan verdict against Gawker, which wrought the end Jezebel’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)

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Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and outspoken advocate of victims of nonconsensual porn, calls the verdict “groundbreaking.” She says it’s rare for victims to have the funds to sue their harassers, and that this pro-bono case helps establish “that there can be serious financial consequences to perpetrators.” That, she says, could act as a deterrent to future would-be revenge pornographers.

But Mary Anne Franks, a policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which is in partnership with CCRLP, argues that while this judgement is “inspiring,” there is a need for better legal options for victims, like the proposed federal law criminalizing nonconsensual porn. That bill, however, comes with a host of issues that concern civil liberties activists and privacy experts, including broad censorship that could apply to everything from cute baby bath-time photos on Facebook to amateur porn blogs to news publications like this one.

She also warns that this case was successful because it was unusual. “The victim in this case owned the copyright in her images, had the benefit of extraordinary legal representation, and was able to point to extensive, dramatic evidence of a years-long campaign of sustained sexual terrorism,” she told Jezebel in an email. “These factors will not all be present in many nonconsensual pornography cases.”