Film producers and distributors, including Twentieth Century Fox, applied for an injunction forcing BT to block access to a file-sharing website called Newzbin, which enabled users to post and download infringing copies of films, music and software.
Newzbin operated off-shore, outside the jurisdiction of the Courts, so the film distributers went after BT, the UK’s largest ISP.
BT had already blocked pornographic websites, so the film studios wanted them to use the same technology to block the illegal file-sharing website.
The key question in Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation & Ors v British Telecommunications Plc was whether BT had ‘actual knowledge’ that a person using their service was infringing copyright. Under the European E-Commerce Directive, ISPs who are merely conduits for information do not have a general obligation to monitor websites. But the High Court found that if the ISP has notice of unlawful activity, and knew its customers were infringing the film studios’ copyrighted material, the service provider could be told to block the website.
Although this ruling applies only to ISPs, it serves as a useful reminder to all businesses that they need to monitor and police their employees’ use of IT, to ensure that there is no illegal activity going on that the business could in some way become liable for. The main risk to businesses is that they present a more attractive target for copyright owners’ legal actions than a potentially unidentified and penniless individual infringer.
The debate about who is responsible for stamping out illegal downloads has been going on for years. For music and film producers, copyright infringements are a crippling loss to their income stream, but understandably service providers like BT and Virgin do not want to be responsible for the activities of hundreds of thousands of individual customers, nor are they keen to risk alienating their own customers by having to enforce someone else’s rights.