Asher Worldwide Enterprises, LLC v. Housewaresonly.com, Inc.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that the individual operators of a defendant website may be held personally liable for copyright infringement for activities occurring on the website. The court found that because the individual defendants comprised the entity's entire workforce, it was reasonable to infer that the defendants committed copyright infringement. Asher Worldwide Enterprises, LLC v. Housewaresonly.com, Inc., Case No. 1:12-00658 (N.D. Ill.., Aug. 26, 2013) (Durkin, J.).
Plaintiff Asher Worldwide sells discounted commercial kitchen equipment through its website www.reliabuy.com. Each product sold on the website has a description of the product attached to it, created by either an employee of Asher or a third party. The copyrights of the descriptions accompanying the products are owned by Asher.
Defendant, Housewaresonly.com, comprised of Stuart N. Rubin and Marcia Rubin (the Rubins), sells discounted kitchen equipment to restaurants through its websites housewaresonly.com and restaurantkitchenwarehouse.com. Housewaresonly directly competes with Asher. In 2009 and 2010, almost 100 of the copyrighted descriptions owned by Asher and posted on Asher's website appeared on Housewaresonly's website. After Asher's website was redesigned in 2010 to provide potential buyers with more information about discounted commercial kitchen equipment, Housewaresonly launched its second website restaurantkitchenwarehouse.com. Asher claimed that Housewaresonly's second website contained more than 200 of Asher's copyrighted descriptions.
Asher sued Housewaresonly for copyright infringement of its copyrighted product descriptions. However, soon after Asher filed the lawsuit, the Rubins dissolved the company, removed its assets and moved to an unknown location. The service of process on the company was delayed because it was discovered that the address listed as their corporate headquarters was a UPS Delivery store. Asher later amended its complaint to include the Rubins as defendants in the case, arguing that the Rubins acted willfully and personally participated in the alleged infringing activities. Housewaresonly filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that they cannot be personally liable for infringement committed by the Housewaresonly.com entity and that Asher had not made a "special showing" of willful personal participation in the infringing activities.
As the district court explained, according to the Seventh Circuit precedent, a corporate officer can be held liable if he acted willfully and knowingly and personally participated in the infringing activities or used the corporation to carry out their own deliberate infringement. Here, the court said that "it is reasonable to infer that the infringement actions of the corporation were committed by the individual defendants because they are in fact the corporation." The Rubins were not only the heads of the corporation, they comprised the entire workforce. Therefore, the court denied the Rubins' motion to dismiss, finding it at least plausible that the individual defendants personally participated in the alleged infringement.
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