Judge Liam O’Grady of the Eastern District of Virginia has issued his full opinion and order granting partial summary judgment to plaintiff music publisher BMG against cable / ISP-provider Cox Communications. Judge O’Grady found that Cox’s “repeat offender” policy against customers accused of committing copyright infringement by downloading content without authorization using Cox network was insufficient as a matter of law. Cox could not, therefore, take advantage of the “safe harbor” provisions of Sec. 512 to escape secondary liability to BMG.
When Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, it created four safe harbors that protect ISPs such as Cox from direct and indirect liability for copyright infringement when their involvement is limited to certain activities—transitory digital networking communications, system caching, information residing on systems or networks at the direction of users, and information location tools. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 512(a)–(d). As an Internet Service Provider, Cox sought protection as a “mere conduit for transmission” to protect against claims of secondary copyright infringement liability for the unauthorized exploitation of BMG’s copyrights by Cox’ subscribers.
In order for Cox to qualify for this “safe harbor,” however, it must demonstrate that it has “adopted and reasonably implemented, and informed subscribers and account holders of the service provider’s system or network of, a policy that provides for the termination in appropriate circumstances of subscribers and account holders of the service provider’s system or network who are repeat infringers.” 17 U.S.C. § 512(i)(1)(A). Court’s have interpreted this requirement to obligate an ISP such as Cox has to “adopt” a policy that is “reasonable.” As the Copyright Act makes clear, for a policy to be “reasonable,” it must provide “for the termination in appropriate circumstances of subscribers … who are repeat infringers.” See Capital Records, LLC v. Escape Media Grp., Inc., No. 12-cv-6646, 2015 WL 1402049, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. March 25, 2015).
Although Cox sought the Court to find that an “infringer” could only be someone adjudicated as such by a court of competent jurisdiction, Judge O’Grady held that an ISP only requires “knowledge” of infringement by a particular user. While this might seem problematic–since the ISP only gains “knowledge” by receiving take-down notices from copyright owners and, as demonstrated by the “Dancing Baby” case (Lenz v. UMG), the copyright owner might be wrong–in practice, as described below, an ISP only takes actions against a subscriber after receiving multiple take-down notices over short periods of time.
Judge O’Grady details Cox’ Abuse Tracking System (“CATS”), which includes graduated responses to complaints about its customers unauthorized access to copyrighted content. In summary, here is CATS
1st Complaint – Cox does nothing
2nd Complaint – Cox sends an email to the customer
3rd Complaint – Cox sends the same email again
4th Complaint – Cox sends the same email again
5th Complaint – Cox sends the same email again
6th Complaint – Cox sends the same email again
7th Complaint – Cox sends the same email again
8th Complaint – Cox suspends the customers account, placing the customer in a “soft-walled garden,” which means the customer’s landing page is a warning message and link to reactive the account
9th Complaint – Cox sends customer back into “soft-walled garden”
10th Complaint – Cox sends customer to a “hard-walled garden,” a landing page that directs the customer to call Cox, during which call the customer can request reactivation
11th Complaint – Cox sends customer back to “hard-walled garden”
12th Complaint – Cox sends customer back to “hard-walled garden,” but now a higher-level Cox customer service rep must be involved for reactivation
13th Complaint – same as #12
14th Complaint – the customer’s account is considered for termination
Mind you, these 14 complaints against a single account-holder had to occur with a 6 month time period! That’s more than one complaint against a single account-holder every 2 weeks!! But it was not the volume of complaints that Cox had to receive before considering termination that caused it to lose the Sec. 512(a) safe harbor. It was the fact even after receiving 14 complaints, Cox never actually ever terminated anyone.
Initially, Cox “pretended” to terminate subscribers, only to reactive them immediately. As described in an email from Cox’ Manager of Customer Abuse Operations,
if a customer is terminated for DMCA, you are able to reactivate them after you give them a stern warning about violating our AUP and the DMCA. We must still terminate in order for us to be in compliance with safe harbor but once termination is complete, we have fulfilled our obligation. After you reactivate them the DMCA ‘counter’ restarts; The procedure restarts with the sending of warning letters, just like a first offense. This is to be an unwritten semi-policy..
There were numerous other emails imparting similar instructions.
Cox was more lenient with subscribers illegally downloading copyrighted material because it had little impact on the network; “It does not cause a big problem on the network. Not like spam, Dos attacks, hacking, etc. do.”
In late 2012, Cox abandoned even this illusory termination and simply stopped terminating anyone. BMG introduced evidence that from January 2010 until August 2012, Cox terminated an average of 15.5 account holders a month. Between September 2012 and November 2014, Cox terminated an average of 0.8 accounts per month, notwithstanding the fact that Cox issued 711,000 email warnings and suspensions in response to alleged infringements during this same period. “Cox also admits that of the 22 terminated accounts, 17 of those had also either failed to pay their bills on time or were excessive bandwidth users.”
Again, Judge O’Grady cites to numerous emails in which Cox’ customer service team dismiss knowledge that a subscriber is using the network to access copyrighted content, often because the subscriber is paying Cox a lot of money: “So, the BitTorrent client is running on one of their computers (their child’s, etc.) and they need to uninstall it. This customer pays us over $400/month and if we terminate their service, they will likely cancel the rest of their services. Every terminated Customer becomes lost revenue and a potential Detractor to our Net Promoter Score;” and “This customer will likely fail again, but let’s give him one more change [sic]. [H]e pays 317.63 a month.”
The decision is below: