RIAA Wins $1 Billion Judgment Against Cox for Copyright Infringement

A US jury has awarded the RIAA a $1 Billion fine against US ISP Cox. The ISP is blamed for copyright infringement activity of its users.

Ask almost anyone familiar with copyright if an ISP can be held liable for the infringing activities of their customers even just 5 years ago, the answer is easily a resounding “no”. It’s a bit like suing a car manufacturer if a criminal buys their car and uses it in crimes. How is the manufacturer really responsible for the crimes of their customers? Of course, we now live in a world where black is white, up is down, short is long, and Trump is president, so anything is possible these days.

A recent judgment has been handed down that could threaten to reshape how ISPs conduct businesses. For more than a decade, the general idea is that ISPs are just a dump pipe. It’s not up to them to police what users do with their connection. If they get court orders, then they can act, but otherwise, they are there just to transmit data. Now, that kind of thinking might be changing.

Cox communications, a major US ISP, was sued by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). The major multinational record label organization accused the ISP of allowing users to infringe on copyright. This in spite of notices being forwarded as required by law. The RIAA argued that Cox wouldn’t disconnect alleged copyright infringers fast enough from their services. As a result, the RIAA took the ISP to court saying that the ISP is clearly to blame for the infringing activities of their users. In a surprising decision, the jury found the ISP guilty and handed down a $1 billion fine. From Deadline:

The major music labels scored a major victory Thursday in their copyright-infringement suit against Cox Communications when a Virginia jury ruled against the cable giant to the tune of $1 billion.

EMI, Warner Music Group, Sony Music and Universal Music sued Cox last year, alleging the mass piracy of 10,000-plus songs by the company’s subscribers. The labels say they sent “hundreds of thousands” of warnings about the infringement to the No. 3 cable provider before taking the issue to court. The jury in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found today that the infringement was willful and awarded $1 billion in damages — nearly $100,000 per infringed work.

“The jury’s verdict sends a clear message: Cox and other ISPs that fail to meet their legal obligations to address piracy on their networks will be held accountable,” the RIAA’s chief legal officer Kenneth Doroshow said in a statement. “The jury recognized these companies’ legal obligation to take meaningful steps to protect music online and made a strong statement about the value of a healthy music ecosystem for everyone — ranging from creators to fans to the available outlets for legitimate music consumption.”

Cox said in a statement: “We are disappointed in the court’s decision. The amount is unjust and excessive. We plan to appeal the case and vigorously defend ourselves. We provide customers with a powerful tool that connects to a world full of content and information. Unfortunately, some customers have chosen to use that connection for wrongful activity. We don’t condone it, we educate on it and we do our best to help curb it, but we shouldn’t be held responsible for the bad actions of others.”

Some might argue that this could potentially further erode section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That provision holds that providers are not to blame if third parties publish content that could break the law. A bill known as FOSTA has been undermining that provision by carving out an exception to that rule. Essentially, if there is any accusation of sex trafficking on a website, then the provider is the one liable for the activities of their users. In response, many dating websites and personals sections of different websites have been shut down. Currently, the enforcement of the law is being fought out in court.

It’s quite possible that this latest court ruling could set a bad precedent that other services could be held liable for the actions of their users. This, of course, goes beyond just ISPs, but other services as well. Some of this depends on how the Cox Communications appeal will go. With the ISP already saying that the judgment is unjust and that they will appeal, then it all boils down to how well this appeal goes.

With so much on the line (and not just $1 billion), a lot could be riding on this case.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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