Teresa Scassa - Blog

Tuesday, 11 March 2014 07:59

Federal Court Decision Aims to Send Copyright Trolls Back Under the Bridge

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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A recent decision from the Federal Court of Canada squarely addresses the issue of copyright trolls and the impact they may have on ordinary Internet users. It also highlights the importance of public interest advocacy in a context that is rife with economic and power imbalances.

The Internet is widely used as a source of content – whether it is in the form of film, music, text or visual works. While there is a great deal of content available both free and for a fee from authorized distributors, other content is shared without the consent of copyright holders. Where unauthorized distribution takes place, copyright may be infringed – but of course whether there has been actual infringement by the downstream user may depend upon a range of considerations.

Copyright owners – particularly those in the film and music industries – have for some time now been decrying the widespread unauthorized sharing of content over the Internet. They have also adopted a variety of strategies to impede these activities. These have included suing file-sharing services such as Napster, Grokster or Pirate Bay, with a view to having them shut down, public education campaigns, and threats of legal action or actual law suits against individual downloaders of protected content. It is with respect to this latter category of action that the label “copyright troll” has been used.

In Voltage Pictures LLC v. John Doe and Jane Doe, Prothonotary Aalto of the Federal Court considered an application for an order to compel Internet service provider TekSavvy to disclose the identities of individuals linked to some 2000 IP addresses that in turn had been associated with illegal downloading of Voltage’s copyright protected films. An earlier Federal Court of Appeal decision in a case involving music downloads had outlined the circumstances in which such an order might be granted, taking into consideration the necessary balance between the applicant’s rights and the privacy rights of the individuals linked to IP addresses. Voltage argued that it had met all of the requirements of this test.

The Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, more commonly known as CIPPIC, intervened in this case in the public interest. CIPPIC’s intervention was particularly important given that there was really no other available party to speak out for the interests of the still anonymous Internet users whose identities might be disclosed were an order to be issued. It is clear as well from reading Prothonotary Aalto’s reasons, that CIPPIC’s submissions had a significant impact on the outcome.

The decision begins with a quote from a U.S. case which speaks of the rise of “copyright trolls”, and it is clear that the spectre of such trolls looms over the Federal Court’s decision. The concept of “trolls” has become common in both patent and copyright litigation. In the copyright context, a troll is a plaintiff who files “multitudes of lawsuits solely to extort quick settlements”.[1] Trolling is a business model in its own right – suits are launched not so much in order to deter or to compensate for the harm caused by infringement; rather, trolling generates revenue by compelling individuals to settle for sums that are lower than the cost of obtaining legal advice and pursing a defence to the threatened action. As Prothonotary Aalto noted in his extensive reasons, copyright trolls have been active in other jurisdictions, and courts in both the U.K. and the U.S. have striven to find an appropriate result that protects individuals while recognizing the rights of copyright owners to bring legal action.

Prothonotary Aalto’s decision is, in fact, an exploration of the issues raised and an attempt to find an appropriate balance between the rights of individuals to pursue their online activities without having their identities disclosed to third parties, and the rights of copyright owners to sue for infringing uses of their works. He begins his reasons by considering the test for a Norwich Order laid out by the Federal Court of Appeal in BMG v. John Doe, another case which required the court to balance privacy interests against the rights of copyright holders. Although in Voltage, CIPPIC argued that the threshold for the application of this test was too low, and that parties seeking disclosures of the names of individual Internet users should have to make out a prima facie case of infringement, rather than just a bona fide (good faith) claim, Prothonotary Aalto found that the test set out by the Federal Court of Appeal was both appropriate and applicable. He also found that Voltage had met the prescribed test, ruling that “the enforcement of Voltage’s rights as a copyright holder outweighs the privacy interests of the affected internet users.” (at para 57) He noted, however, that the test left room to consider and to moderate the impact of the order on privacy rights.

There was no evidence in this case that Voltage was a copyright troll. Indeed, Prothonotary Aalto found that Voltage had met its burden of showing that it had a genuine copyright infringement case and that a court order to compel TekSavvy to release the contact information of some of its customers was the only reasonable means of establishing the identities of the alleged infringers. However, he acknowledged evidence and argument by CIPPIC to the effect that there might be technological flaws in the methods used to link IP addresses to downloading activities, such that some IP addresses may have been identified in error. He also accepted that some of the downloading activity might be justifiable under one defense or another. More importantly, perhaps, he was sensitive to the evidence supplied by CIPPIC of copyright troll activities in other jurisdictions and of the concerns of courts in those jurisdictions regarding such practices.

Ultimately, Prothonotary Aalto’s decision seeks to balance the intellectual property rights of the copyright owner with the privacy rights of individuals who might be identified as a result of a court granting a Norwich Order. In his view, it is only in a case where there is “compelling evidence of improper motive on behalf of a plaintiff in seeking to obtain information about alleged infringers” that a court would be justified in refusing to grant such an order. (at para 133) Nevertheless, the court has the authority to place terms and conditions on the grant of the order, and these terms and conditions can protect the privacy of individuals by ensuring that their personal information is not shared or misused by a company that seeks this information for improper purposes, such as copyright trolling.

In issuing the Norwich Order in this case – which compels TekSavvy to furnish the information sought, Prothonotary Aalto placed significant limits on the order. In the first place, Voltage is ordered to compensate TekSavvy for its legal and administrative costs in compiling the requested information. A copy of the court’s order must accompany any correspondence sent to TekSavvy customers by Voltage as a result of the sharing of the customer information. Any such correspondence must also “clearly state in bold type that no Court has yet made a determination that such Subscriber has infringed or is liable in any way for payment of damages.” (clause 8 of the order) This is to avoid the type of demand letter seen in copyright troll cases in other jurisdictions where letters sent to individuals convey the impression that conclusions have already been reached on issues of infringement. As an additional safeguard, Prothonotary Aalto ordered that a draft of any such letter must be reviewed by the Case Management Judge appointed to oversee the process before it is sent to any individuals. The order also provides that the personal information shared by TekSavvy as a result of the order must be kept confidential by Voltage and must not be shared with anyone else – including the general public or the media -- without the court’s permission.

The decision in this case is a welcome one. It reflects a serious effort to ensure fairness and balance between the parties. It provides the applicant with the means to obtain the information it needs to pursue copyright infringement claims; at the same time, it imposes restrictions designed to ensure that the personal information is not used improperly to generate revenue well in excess of any damages suffered by the rights holder by pushing individuals into settlements in order to avoid the costs and stresses of threatened litigation. The decision is a direct result of public interest advocacy and a reminder of the important role played by organizations such as CIPPIC.

It is worth noting that the 2012 amendments to the Copyright Act included changes to the statutory damages provisions in that statute. These provisions allow plaintiffs to opt for a fixed amount of damages in cases of infringement – in other words, to be compensated without having to establish any particular losses. The 2012 amendments drastically reduced the amount of statutory damages that can be awarded against individuals whose infringing activities are essentially non-commercial. This takes away the ability for plaintiffs to stack statutory damages in suits against individual downloaders in order to arrive at the ridiculously high (and ultimately punitive) damage awards that we have seen in the U.S. in lawsuits against students or other private individuals whose downloading was simply for their own consumption. The message from Parliament is clearly that this type of conduct, while still infringing, should not be be exploited by rights holders either to “send messages” or to provide a new business model based on serial demand letters to large numbers of vulnerable individuals. The decision by Prothonotary Aalto is in keeping with this message. While copyright owners are entitled to enforce their rights through the courts, the courts must ensure that “the judicial process is not being used to support a business model intended to coerce innocent individuals to make payments to avoid being sued.” (at para 35)

[1] This is from TCYK, LLC v. Does 1-88, 2013 U.S. Dist LEXIS 88402. The quoted words are part of the passage in the quote that starts off the Federal Court decision.

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