UK: Arguments of Being Innocent Host in Copyright Infringement Case Sent to Bin - Twentieth Century Fox v Newzbin, High Court

Last Updated: 13 April 2010
Article by Paul Gershlick

The operators of the Newzbin web site – which provided helpful tools to enable people to share unauthorised content such as films – infringed the copyright owners' content in providing that service by authorising the copying of them, the High Court has ruled. It procured, encouraged and entered into a common design with the users to infringe the material, and it also communicated the films to the users by making them available via electronic transmission such that people could access them from a place and at a time chosen by them. After several cases overseas particularly from Australia, this is the first reported case in the UK in which web site providers have been deemed to authorise copyright material on the Internet.

Newzbin provided indexing and search services for the Usenet Internet discussion system. Usenet enables people to upload and view messages on a public bulletin board. Usenet was not designed for big files such as films, which need to be split into thousands of small parts. Any user who wants to see the film needs to piece all those bits together. Newzbin made that process much easier for users. They compiled an index of films, had 250 editors who compiled reports of the films and links to other information about the films, and provided a one-click mechanism that enabled premium paying members to readily assemble the work from its component parts without having to spend days doing so. Newzbin claimed that it was 'content agnostic' by indexing the entire content of Usenet with providing links where possible and any unlawful activity was done by a user of the hyperlinks.

The High Court had little time for Newzbin's arguments. It described terms and conditions saying that its editors must not do any act to enable, incite or encourage any unlawful acts and similar terms and conditions for its users as being 'entirely cosmetic' and a 'superficial attempt' to conceal Newzbin's purpose. Newzbin's functionality and categorisation of content and encouragement given to editors to report films meant it had been aware for many years that copyright in the vast majority of films accessed through Newzbin were being infringed.

Newzbin had authorised the infringement. Authorisation went beyond mere enablement, assistance or even encouragement. It meant purporting to grant a right to do something, and that could be express or implied from the relevant circumstances. The circumstances included the nature of the relationship with the primary infringer, whether material supplied was used for the infringement, whether infringement was inevitable, the degree of control retained by the supplier, and whether any steps had been taken to stop infringement. Newzbin fell foul of all of those criteria. A reasonable member would have concluded that Newzbin purported to have the authority to grant the required permission and had sanctioned, approved and countenanced the copying. Newzbin provided a searchable and user-friendly facility for premium paying members, it must have known what users were doing and took no steps to stop it; instead, any contractual restrictions were window dressing.

Authorisation the infringement was sufficient to have liability to the film industry, but the High Court went further and said that Newzbin had also procured the infringement or had a common design to infringe. It went beyond mere facilitation and extended to being so involved with the infringement as to be jointly responsible. The Court said that Newzbin operated a web site designed and intended to make infringing copies of films readily available to premium members, the service was structured so as to promote infringement and inevitably did so, editors had been encouraged and induced to make reports of films, it had encouraged its members to give advice to each other about how to do it, and it had profited from the infringements.

The Court ruled that there had been a third form of copyright infringement. The facility had enabled Newzbin's premium members to download the films from a place and at a time individually chosen by them, and when doing so the way in which Newzbin's service worked meant that it had been actively involved with communicating the copyright work to the public by electronic transmission without permission

It was certainly a happy ending for Twentieth Century Fox and the other film makers and distributors in this case, and they will be hoping that there is no twist in the plot in the appeal courts.

Paul Gershlick, a Partner at Matthew Arnold & Baldwin LLP and editor of www.Upload-IT.com , comments: 'This result is not particularly surprising. If Newzbin had been able to get away with what they did, it would have been open season for everyone. The case does not alter the best practice advice for genuine service providers on the Internet who do not wish to profit or encourage intellectual property infringement. They should have a good system in place to enable the reporting and rapid takedown of infringing material, and act on it.

'There is still no reported UK case on whether web sites simply providing hyperlinks to other sites where infringing material can be found but without doing more or otherwise benefiting would be doing anything wrong. However, I'd be surprised if such a service provider was pulled up if they were simply facilitating a service to users and had no control or intention over what their users do.'

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