BitTorrent site liable for Grokster style inducement of copyright infringement

Columbia Pictures v. Fung, No. 06-5578 (C.D. Cal. December 21, 2009).

This case came out three weeks ago, but it’s pretty significant and hasn’t gotten the coverage and analysis it deserves. Of course Professor Goldman covered it in a timely manner. But his blogging agility surpasses that of us mere mortals.

Fung and his company Isohunt Web Technolgies ran a number of popular BitTorrent sites where users could find and share torrent files that permitted the downloading of video files. [Here's how BitTorrent works.] Several Hollywood studios sued Fung and his company for copyright infringement over the operation of the sites and the activites of the sites’ users.

Ostriches don't actually put their head in the sand

The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on the copyright claims. The court granted the motion.

The court based its ruling on a theory of “secondary liability” — that is, Fung and his company were liable for the copyright infringement (i.e., the distribution of copyrighted movies and TV shows) committed by users of the sites. More specifically, the court held that the defendants induced copyright infringement, citing to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in MGM v. Grokster.

The defendants’ inducement of copyright infringement

Under Grokster, “one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.”

In this case, the court found numerous ways that the defendants had induced copyright infringement. Among the defendants’ activities that gave rise to secondary liability were:

  • Providing categories on the sites to assist users in locating and downloading currently-popular movies, and making express statements to third parties to encourage copyright infringement
  • Providing technical support to users who desired to download and view copyrighted materials.
  • Implementing technical features (such as crawling The Pirate Bay) to locate copyrighted material
  • Relying on an advertising based business model that benefitted from high volume traffic drawn by the availability of infringing material

Rejection of the defendants’ DMCA affirmative defense

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the safe harbors of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) should shield the torrent sites form liability.

A service provider can sail its ship into a DMCA safe harbor if, among other things, it does not have actual knowledge of, or is not willfully blind to, infringing activities being undertaken through its system. Said another way, the limitation of liability afforded by the DMCA is lost if the provider becomes aware of a “red flag” from which infringing activity is apparent.

The court found that the defendants did not qualify for safe harbor protection because of the “overwhelming” evidence that the defendants knew of the infringing activity. The court borrowed from the Aimster case to state that the defendants would not have known of the infringement only if they engaged in an “ostrich-like refusal” to observe what was happening. That willful blindess would not serve as an excuse.

Ostrich photo courtesy of Flickr user Pedronet under this Creative Commons license.