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An IP Address Alone Isn't Enough to Support Copyright Infringement Claim

Do you know all the people connecting to the internet using your IP address? It's possible, if you live alone and you're tech-savvy enough to password-protect your internet connection. But what if a family all uses the same connection? Or you own an adult foster care facility that houses many people, all with access to the internet connection under your name? And one of those people uses your IP address to illegally download a crappy Adam Sandler movie? Are you on the hook for copyright infringement?

Not according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last week that "the bare allegation that the defendant was the registered subscriber of an Internet Protocol address associated with infringing activity was insufficient to state a claim for direct or contributory infringement."

The Homeowner and the Cobbler

The case involved Thomas Gonzales, owner of an adult care home in Portland, Oregon. Although Gonzales owns the facility, the internet service there was accessible to both residents and visitors. The other party involved, Cobbler Nevada, LLC, holds copyrights in the film "The Cobbler," an Adam Sandler film that features "[a] cobbler, bored of his everyday life, [who] stumbles upon a magical heirloom that allows him to become other people." Oof.

Anyway, Cobbler Nevada learned that Gonzales's IP address had downloaded and distributed "The Cobbler" multiple times without authorization, and filed a copyright infringement claim against him, and just him, alleging that he either directly infringed the copyright himself or, in the alternative, contributed to the infringement by not adequately policing the internet connection in his name.

The IP Address and Liability

But a district court initially and later the Ninth Circuit weren't buying it. "The direct infringement claim fails because Gonzales's status as the registered subscriber of an infringing IP address, standing alone, does not create a reasonable inference that he is also the infringer," the Ninth Circuit ruled. "Because multiple devices and individuals may be able to connect via an IP address, simply identifying the IP subscriber solves only part of the puzzle."

Additionally, the court also held that "without allegations of intentional encouragement or inducement of infringement," the company's claims of contributory infringement also failed. "Imposing such a duty," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote, "would put at risk any purchaser of internet service who shares access with a family member or roommate, or who is not technologically savvy enough to secure the connection to block access by a frugal neighbor."

There may be no accounting for taste when it comes to illegally downloaded movies, but at least there's a standard for infringement liability.

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