We've seen, lately, that the entertainment industry has been targeting third parties for liability. For years, they've talked about making ISPs more "liable" for infringement, but now they're extending that web in potentially problematic ways. Of course, this is a lot of what the whole COICA debate is about. Part of the way COICA works is by extending liability to third parties -- ISPs, advertising partners, domain registrars, payment processors -- if they don't cut off all services to those accused of infringement (often without any adversarial hearing). But in some cases, they're already targeting those third parties, and two separate stories on TorrentFreak demonstrate that.
The first involves Liberty Media suing Paypal along with Hotfile (and 1,000 John Does)
for alleged infringement. Hotfile is a cyberlocker, which has plenty of perfectly legitimate uses, but is also frequently used for infringement. Liberty Media walks through a complex set of relationships, which it seems to interpret in the most nefarious way possible. For example:
"Demonstrating that Defendant Hotfile.com is aware of the illegality of its conduct, it offers two methods for download services. For its first option, Defendant Hotfile.com permits its partners to download a stolen movie at a very slow transfer speed for no charge. The other option allows users to pay a premium to download the movie ten times faster."
It certainly sounds bad when you put it like that, but of course, plenty of file storage/file transfer sites offer tiered packages that involve paying for faster transfer rates. That, in no way, demonstrates awareness of illegal content. I'm not saying Hotfile isn't potentially liable, but claiming the tiered pricing is evidence of that seems strange.
But it seems even worse that Liberty is suing PayPal as well -- and I would bet that PayPal will quickly file to be dismissed from the case, as an unrelated third party, or one protected by safe harbors. It's going to be quite a stretch for Liberty to prove that Paypal is somehow liable for the actions not just of a company that uses Paypal, but the users of that company. It's fourth or fifth party liability, rather than third party liability.
The other story involves a case that's a bit further along, where a judge has ordered a preliminary injunction against two ad providers and a domain registrar
over a website that allegedly hosts infringing scans of various books. Since the holder of the domain is kept private via eNom's Whois Privacy Protection Service, the court ordered eNom to reveal the identity of the domain owner and to "disable the website." The judge also ordered the two ad networks -- Clicksor and Chitika -- to stop working with the site.
While I could see suing the John Does behind the site, and then working to get a subpoena to identify the real parties behind the alleged infringement, directly suing these three companies seems like a huge stretch, and it's disappointing that the judge rushed to issue the injunction so quickly. The original complaint
(pointed out by Eric Goldman
, makes some ridiculously broad claims about third party liability.
This is unfortunate, but not a surprise. We've been warning for the better part of a decade the problems with third party liability. Those who benefit from it will always
push to stretch it to dump liability on third parties who had absolutely nothing to do with the actual infringement, and often had no idea that any infringement was going on. These payment companies, ad networks and registrars are quite far removed from any actual infringement. As noted above, they're barely "third parties" at all, as they're really fourth or fifth parties, so far removed from the actual infringement as to make these legal actions really quite questionable. It's hard to see how anyone can reasonably argue that a registrar or a payment processor or an ad network should somehow be liable for actions done by the users
of a site that they work with. If this continues it will severely stifle many of these activities, as payment providers and ad networks won't do business with all sorts of perfectly legitimate sites, just to avoid the liability of being blamed for the actions of someone two steps removed.