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By Charles Lam
If lawyers for Dish Network are right, Tan Minh Nguyen is a devious, modern-day pirate who cracks the multibillion-dollar corporation's satellite-broadcasting security codes and illegally shares the information with 175,000 members of his Little Saigon-based international website.
If Nguyen is right, he's a falsely accused man who knows nothing about corporate espionage or codes, believes firmly in integrity, and is being overzealously pursued by a corporate giant hell-bent on wrecking his life.
Regardless of who is right at this point, the 44-year-old single father of two young boys and a self-described "little, ordinary guy" is in a world of serious trouble. In March, Dish Network sued Nguyen in the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana for violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The company, which is seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in allegedly lost subscriber fees, also successfully obtained a temporary restraining order that shut down the Little Saigon man's only source of income: ownership of "fta4all"—or Free-to-Access Resource Community—websites that provided him "a couple of hundred dollars" per month.
If the 3-month-old case has so far proved anything, it's that Nguyen, who is unemployed and can't afford a lawyer, is no match for a team of Dish Network attorneys. He says he was out of state looking for a job when the company filed the case against him in March. The first hint of trouble came when he checked on his Go Daddy-created websites and found them shut down. His next move inadvertently violated the restraining order signed by U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna.
"I thought my sites had been hijacked, so I opened a new one for my members," Nguyen recalls. "I didn't know what was happening."
By the time Nguyen returned to Orange County and saw all of the Federal Express home deliveries with legal documents, he says he had only two days to reply. He didn't understand most of the legal terminology but researched on the Internet how to craft a simple denial letter.
"I was shocked," he says. "I have no money for a lawyer, and I've done nothing wrong. [Dish Network hasn't] proved anything against me, but it's a case of guilty until proven innocent. They say I produced decryption codes. Where? When? How? Show me? It's not me. This never happened."
According to Nguyen, his website was free to members and allowed people around the world to legally share methods to improve reception of free satellite-broadcasting signals. With the aid of a friend working in a building shared by the Communist Party of Vietnam in Hanoi, he launched the business in 2007. (He says he's not a communist sympathizer, supports pro-democracy efforts and grew up with a father who was a South Vietnamese government official.) The income he derived from the website was based solely on Google-monitored traffic, he says. In the early years, he made "several thousand dollars a month"; that amount dropped to about $300 per month before the injunction.
"I had 175,000 members," says Nguyen. "They are using languages I don't even know. I can't monitor every post, but if I found out that somebody posted something illegal, I would take it down immediately and ban them. . . . [Dish Network] never contacted me before they filed their lawsuit."
To back up his point, he cited Dish Network's complaint against him. The company's experts claim they joined Nguyen's site earlier this year, found more than 30 suspicious messages, and then used internal methods to determine that they provided satellite-access codes that circumvented detection systems. The alleged piracy-software files given names such as "Premier_svlan_26.rom," "SV360Elite_svlan_es20.rom" and "SV8000HD_svlan_HD20," according to the lawsuit.
"I am not a programmer," says Nguyen. "I don't know what's in those files. I don't know what they mean. I didn't put them there. If somebody posted those files, [Dish Network] should go after them, not me."
Nevertheless, the company's attorneys demanded in the subpoena that Nguyen promptly give them all his computers, hard drives and records relating to the piracy of their valuable satellite-broadcasting signals. This is where the complex world of American jurisprudence met the sensibilities of an immigrant who fled communist Vietnam on a boat as a starving, 10-year-old in 1978 and, though hardly dumb, speaks un-mastered English after attending high schools in Cypress and Costa Mesa.
"They asked for all of my things used for piracy, but I'm not a pirate so I have nothing to give them," Nguyen reasoned.
He eventually mailed the lawyers a copy of his website business and didn't try to block them from subpoenaing his bank and Google-traffic records. "That's all I have," he tells me.
But Selna believes Nguyen purposefully ignored his orders by launching a new website, failing to attend two court hearings and refusing to fully comply with the subpoena.
"No, I am not trying to upset the judge," Nguyen says. "Nobody told me to be in court. If they had, I would have been there."
Even if inadvertent, annoying a federal judge can be costly. The first week of contempt cost Nguyen $1,000 per day. The penalty increased to $5,000 per day during the second week. Since May 29, the amount has been $10,000 every 24 hours. When he arrives in court for a July 9 hearing, Nguyen likely will face a whopping $482,000 bill and the threat of imprisonment from a black-robed man who has an army of U.S. marshals to enforce his wishes.
"This is very stressful to me," Nguyen says. "I believe in this country and that you work for what you get. This is the lesson I always tell my two boys: Work hard, don't take government handouts, and you will succeed here."
The entire case against him is based on a demonstrably false assumption, Nguyen says. "If I were a pirate selling access codes, wouldn't I be making money from it?" he asked. "Where's the money? They can't find any because there isn't any."
Nguyen has confidence in juries. In 2001, police arrested him on six felony counts of grand theft. If he had been convicted, he likely would have landed in a California prison. But an Orange County jury found him not guilty of every charge in what turned out to be nothing more than a dispute with a bitter, ex-business partner.
"I tried to tell the prosecutor I wasn't guilty, but he didn't listen," he recalls. "He kept coming after me."
In his current legal mess, Nguyen says, he told Dish Network lawyers they are destroying an innocent man's life. "They don't care," he says, sighing heavily. "They said I am stealing their satellite signal."
Even if he's on the wrong side of Selna, Nguyen believes a future federal jury will be fair.
"They will see this is Goliath against the little guy," he says. "And I hope they will let me get on with my life."
This column appeared in print as "Dishing It Out: Dish Network and a federal judge heatedly pursue a Little Saigon man for alleged satellite-broadcasting piracy."