IP Addresses Not Enough to Identify Copyright Infringers

One of the issues that frequently arises in copyright cases involving BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer Internet filing sharing protocol, is whether an individual defendant can be identified and held liable solely on the basis of an Internet Protocol (IP) address associated with a specific account.  Judge Robert S. Lasnik, Western District of Washington, recently answered that question with an emphatic “No.”  The plaintiff alleged that the defendants infringed plaintiff’s copyright by downloading the movie “The Thompsons” without authorization.

Simply identifying the account holder associated with an IP address tells us very little about who actually downloaded ‘The Thompsons’ using that IP address. While it is possible that the subscriber is the one who participated in the BitTorrent swarm, it is also possible that a family member, guest, or freeloader engaged in the infringing conduct. The First Amended Complaint, read as a whole, suggests that plaintiff has no idea who downloaded ‘The Thompsons’ using a particular IP address. Plaintiff has not alleged that a named defendant has the BitTorrent ‘client’ application on her computer, that the download or distribution is in some way linked to the individual subscriber (as opposed to her account), that the defendant has acknowledged personal involvement in the download and distribution, or even circumstances which might increase the likelihood that the subscriber is the infringer (such as defendant’s living arrangements or network details). Rather than provide specific facts tying the named defendant to the infringing conduct, plaintiff merely alleges that her IP address ‘was observed infringing Plaintiff’s motion picture’ and guesses how that might have come about. While it is possible that one or more of the named defendants was personally involved in the download, it is also possible that they simply failed to secure their connection against third-party interlopers. Plaintiff has failed to adequately allege a claim for direct copyright infringement.

(Opinion pdf pages 4-5).

The district court also held that the plaintiff failed to adequately allege contributory infringement. Contributory infringement occurs when the actor has knowledge of the infringing activity and induces, causes or materially contributes to another’s the infringing conduct. The district court further refused to extend contributory infringement to a situation in which the defendant was not alleged to have intentionally contributed to the infringement.

This case is The Thompsons Film, LLC v. Does 1 – 194, No. C13-0560RSL, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington.

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