Open WiFi Owner Not Liable For Illegal File-Sharing, Court Rules

Dependant on the side they're representing, lawyers around the world have taken opposing stances when it comes to liability for infringement via open WiFi. When representing plaintiffs they speak of 'a duty of care' to rightsholders and when defending Internet users they insist that holding individuals responsible for the actions of others is a step too far. In a landmark case in Finland, a court has just agreed with the latter.

wifiAs people’s lives and the Internet became more and more entwined during the last decade, investment in multiple web-enabled devices rocketed.

From simple multiple PC locations to network-enabled storage devices and games consoles, effective home networking – wireless in particular – has gradually become a basic requirement.

In recent years, wireless routers – the now-commonplace devices enabling these networks – have become a conflict ground for lawyers working in file-sharing cases. When unauthorized (or at the least unidentified) people access them in order to engage in copyright infringement online, should their owners be held responsible?

In a landmark ruling yesterday which examined existing EU law, a District Court clarified the position in Finland following a near two-year long file-sharing case.

In 2010, anti-piracy group CIAPC obtained the identity of a local woman and sued her for copyright infringement. They claimed that she had used Direct Connect to infringe the rights of their entertainment industry members. Pay us 6,000 euros to make the case go away, they told her, or things will get much worse.

But instead of caving in the woman kicked back. The offense, which allegedly took place in a 12 minute time period on July 14th 2010, coincided with an event at the woman’s home attended by 100 people. Any one of them could have fired up a laptop, accessed the open WiFi, and been tracked by CIAPC.

“The applicants were unable to provide any evidence that the connection-owner herself had been involved in the file-sharing,” explains Ville Oksanen from Turre Legal, the law firm defending the woman.

“The court thus examined whether the mere act of providing a WiFi connection not
protected with a password can be deemed to constitute a copyright-infringing act.”

Oksanen notes that CIAPC had also requested an injunction to prevent the woman from infringing their clients’ copyrights in future. Had this have been granted the implications for anyone running open WiFi – domestically or in a commercial environment – could have been far-reaching. One instance of infringement could lead to an injunction, and the only way to be absolutely certain of avoiding a future breach would be to shut the system down completely.

In the event the court looked at the Finnish interpretations of several EU directives including Directive 2000/31/EC, Copyright Directive 2001/29/EC and the Copyright Enforcement Directive 2004/48/EC.

The District Court ruled that WiFi owners can not be held liable for the copyright infringing activities of third parties, an argument that still rages, for and against, in the United States.

While this ruling will be welcomed by Internet activists and network providers alike, it is still possible for CIAPC to take their case to appeal. However, should they choose to do so, Turre Legal say that taking the case to the European Court of Justice remains an option.

The ruling will be of concern to IFPI and Teosto, the Finnish Composers’ Copyright Society. They’re in the process of obtaining the identities of dozens of Pirate Bay users who allegedly shared the songs of Finland’s answer to Justin Bieber. If those alleged file-sharers are reading this story now, odds are that many of them will remember that their WiFi networks are wide open.

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