Who is responsible for copyright infringement on a shared computer?

Who is responsible for copyright infringement on a shared computer?

Copyright law was written long before computers were a household appliance.  When United States copyright law was originally drafted in 1790, and even when copyright law was updated in recent decades, the updates failed to predict the advancement of technology. The internet is especially bothersome for copyright law.  Copyright law struggles to deal with the concept of a web of interconnected devices, sharing information constantly.

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted by a government to the creator of a new artistic expression.  When an artist, such as an author, musician or film maker, creates a new work; they are granted a copyright to the work.  A copyright gives an artist the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit the work and to make derivative works based on the copyright work.  If someone other than the copyright owner exercises one of these exclusive rights that is considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can file a lawsuit to stop copyright infringement with an injunction and to get monetary damages for copyright infringement which has already occurred.  A copyright owner can accuse someone of direct copyright infringement if they are actually infringing on one of the exclusive rights granted by copyright.  A copyright owner can also accuse someone contributory copyright infringement if that person is not directly violating a copyright but, induces or authorizes another person to directly infringe the copyright.

Copyright law was drafted on the assumption that a copyrighted work would be embodied in a tangible object that would require specialized equipment to reproduce.  For instance a printing press or a photo studio.  The need for specialized equipment to reproduce copyrighted works meant that the identity of a copyright infringe was easy to figure out.  The local print shop would be the logical first suspect if counterfeit books were discovered in a town. If the owner of the print shop wasn’t the person committing copyright infringement it is likely they were contributing the copyright infringement.

The internet negates it trivial to reproduce and distribute copyrighted works.  Reproduction and distribution of a copyrighted work can now be accomplished in a matter of moments with a mobile phone.  The internet also has a tradition of being a shared resource.  Businesses will frequently let their customers use wifi to connect to the internet using the business’s internet connection.  If a customer uses a business’s free internet connection to commit copyright infringement it is more difficult to argue that the business is also liable for the contributory infringement because the business is not inducing or authorizing the infringement.

A case which illustrates how it is difficult to determine who is liable for copyright infringement on the internet is COBBLER NEVADA v. GONZALES, 17-35041 (9th Cir. 2018).  In this case the plaintiff owned the copyright to a movie. The plaintiff discovered that someone was distributing copies of the movie on the internet.  The plaintiff used the internet protocol (IP) address of the computer that was distributing the film to file a lawsuit.  During the course of the lawsuit the plaintiff forced the internet service provider to reveal the real name of the person paying for the IP address. Gonzales was the person paying for the internet connection with the internet protocol address, but he argued that he was just letting people use wifi at his business.  The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s case because the court found that an internet protocol address alone was not enough to impose liability for copyright infringement.

The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The Ninth Circuit held that direct infringement claim fails because Gonzales’s status as the registered subscriber of an infringing IP address, standing alone, does not create a reasonable inference that he is also the infringer. Because multiple devices and individuals may be able to connect via an IP address, simply identifying the IP subscriber solves only part of the puzzle. A plaintiff must allege something more to create a reasonable inference that a subscriber is also an infringer. Nor can Cobbler Nevada succeed on a contributory infringement theory because, without allegations of intentional encouragement or inducement of infringement, an individual’s failure to take affirmative steps  to police his internet connection is insufficient to state a claim.

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