Duty and Control in Intermediary Copyright Liability: An Australian Perspective

By Kylie Pappalardo, Queensland University of Technology

from Volume 4, Issue 1 (Summer, 2014)

Download this Article in PDF format from The Jerome Hall Law Library’s Digital Repository.

Abstract: In the internet age, copyright owners are increasingly looking to online intermediaries to take steps to prevent copyright infringement. Sometimes these intermediaries are closely tied to the acts of infringement; sometimes – as in the case of ISPs – they are not. In 2012, the Australian High Court decided the Roadshow Films v iiNet case, in which it held that an Australian ISP was not liable under copyright’s authorization doctrine, which asks whether the intermediary has sanctioned, approved or countenanced the infringement. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 directs a court to consider, in these situations, whether the intermediary had the power to prevent the infringement and whether it took any reasonable steps to prevent or avoid the infringement. It is generally not difficult for a court to find the power to prevent infringement – power to prevent can include an unrefined technical ability to disconnect users from the copyright source, such as an ISP terminating users’ internet accounts. In the iiNet case, the High Court eschewed this broad approach in favor of focusing on a notion of control that was influenced by principles of tort law.

In tort, when a plaintiff asserts that a defendant should be liable for failing to act to prevent harm caused to the plaintiff by a third party, there is a heavy burden on the plaintiff to show that the defendant had a duty to act. The duty must be clear and specific, and will often hinge on the degree of control that the defendant was able to exercise over the third party. Control in these circumstances relates directly to control over the third party’s actions in inflicting the harm. Thus, in iiNet’s case, the control would need to be directed to the third party’s infringing use of BitTorrent; control over a person’s ability to access the internet is too imprecise.

Further, when considering omissions to act, tort law differentiates between the ability to control and the ability to hinder. The ability to control may establish a duty to act, and the court will then look to small measures taken to prevent the harm to determine whether these satisfy the duty. But the ability to hinder will not suffice to establish liability in the absence of control.

This article argues that an inquiry grounded in control as defined in tort law would provide a more principled framework for assessing the liability of passive intermediaries in copyright. In particular, it would set a higher, more stable benchmark for determining the copyright liability of passive intermediaries, based on the degree of actual, direct control that the intermediary can exercise over the infringing actions of its users. This approach would provide greater clarity and consistency than has existed to date in this area of copyright law in Australia.