Court blocks $1 billion copyright ruling that punished ISP for its users’ piracy


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A federal appeals court today overturned a $1 billion piracy verdict that a jury handed down against cable Internet service provider Cox Communications in 2019. Judges rejected Sony’s claim that Cox profited directly from copyright infringement committed by users of Cox’s cable broadband network.

Appeals court judges didn’t let Cox off the hook entirely, but they vacated the damages award and ordered a new damages trial, which will presumably result in a significantly smaller amount to be paid to Sony and other copyright holders. Universal and Warner are also plaintiffs in the case.

“We affirm the jury’s finding of willful contributory infringement,” said a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel at the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. “But we reverse the vicarious liability verdict and remand for a new trial on damages because Cox did not profit from its subscribers’ acts of infringement, a legal prerequisite for vicarious liability.”

If the correct legal standard had been used in the district court, “no reasonable jury could find that Cox received a direct financial benefit from its subscribers’ infringement of Plaintiffs’ copyrights,” judges wrote.

The case began when Sony and other music copyright holders sued Cox, claiming that it didn’t adequately fight piracy on its network and failed to terminate repeat infringers. A US District Court jury in the Eastern District of Virginia found the ISP liable for infringement of 10,017 copyrighted works.

Copyright owners want ISPs to disconnect users

Cox’s appeal was supported by advocacy groups concerned that the big-money judgment could force ISPs to disconnect more Internet users based merely on accusations of copyright infringement. Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation also called the ruling legally flawed.

“When these music companies sued Cox Communications, an ISP, the court got the law wrong,” the EFF wrote in 2021. It effectively decided that the only way for an ISP to avoid being liable for infringement by its users is to terminate a household or business‘s account after a small number of accusations—perhaps only two. The court also allowed a damages formula that can lead to nearly unlimited damages, with no relationship to any actual harm suffered. If not overturned, this decision will lead to an untold number of people losing vital Internet access as ISPs start to cut off more and more customers to avoid massive damages.”

In today’s 4th Circuit ruling, appeals court judges wrote that “Sony failed, as a matter of law, to prove that Cox profits directly from its subscribers’ copyright infringement.”

A defendant may be vicariously liable for a third party’s copyright infringement if it profits directly from it and is in a position to supervise the infringer, the ruling said. Cox argued that it doesn’t profit directly from infringement because it receives the same monthly fee from subscribers whether they illegally download copyrighted files or not, the ruling noted.

The question in this type of case is whether there is a causal relationship between the infringement and the financial benefit. “If copyright infringement draws customers to the defendant’s service or incentivizes them to pay more for their service, that financial benefit may be profit from infringement. But in every case, the financial benefit to the defendant must flow directly from the third party’s acts of infringement to establish vicarious liability,” the court said.



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