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Can Judges Order ISPs to Block Websites for Copyright Infringement? (Part 3)

Posted by Ananth Padmanabhan at Feb 14, 2014 05:13 AM |
In a three-part study, Ananth Padmanabhan examines the "John Doe" orders that courts have passed against ISPs, which entertainment companies have used to block dozens, if not hundreds, of websites. In this, the third and concluding part, he looks at the Indian law in the Copyright Act and the Information Technology Act, and concludes that both those laws restrain courts and private companies from ordering an ISP to block a website for copyright infringement.

In the third part of his study, Ananth Padmanabhan looks into the fair use provisions recently introduced in respect of mere conduit intermediaries by the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012, and concludes that there is no scope for any general, or specific, access blocking orders at the behest of the plaintiff in a civil suit, in India. He also argues that the Information Technology Act, 2000 read with the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 do not in any manner permit the Government to override the provisions of the Copyright Act, 1957 (as amended) while facilitating the denial of access to websites on grounds of copyright infringement, because the Copyright Act, 1957, is a complete code by itself.

Fair Use Provisions Introduced by the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012

In 2010, the controversial Copyright (Amendment) Bill came up for deliberation before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development headed by Mr. Oscar Fernandes. While a major part of the discussion on this amendment revolved around the altered royalty structure and rights allocation between music composers and lyricists on the one hand and film producers on the other, it can be safely stated that this is the most significant amendment to the Copyright Act, 1957 for more than this one reason. The amendment seeks to reform the Copyright Board, bring in a scheme of statutory licenses, expand the scope of performers’ rights and introduce anti-circumvention measures to check copyright piracy. As part of its ambitious objective, the amendment also attempts a new fair use model to protect intermediaries and file-sharing websites.

The Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012, which gives expression to this fair use model through Sections 52(1)(b) and (c), reads thus:

52. Certain acts not to be infringement of copyright. - (1) The following acts shall not constitute an infringement of copyright, namely:

(a) to (ad) - *****

(b) the transient or incidental storage of a work or performance purely in the technical process of electronic transmission or communication to the public;

(c) transient or incidental storage of a work or performance for the purpose of providing electronic links, access or integration, where such links, access or integration has not been expressly prohibited by the right holder, unless the person responsible is aware or has reasonable grounds for believing that such storage is of an infringing copy:

Provided that if the person responsible for the storage of the copy has received a written complaint from the owner of copyright in the work, complaining that such transient or incidental storage is an infringement, such person responsible for the storage shall refrain from facilitating such access for a period of twenty-one days or till he receives an order from the competent court refraining from facilitating access and in case no such order is received before the expiry of such period of twenty-one days, he may continue to provide the facility of such access;

From a plain reading, it is clear that two important exceptions are carved out: one, in respect of the technical process of electronic transmission and the other, in respect of providing electronic links, access or integration. The material distinction between these exceptions is the presence of a take-down proviso in respect of the latter kind of activity, ie. when providing electronic links, access or integration. This window of opportunity is not provided to the copyright owner when the third party is an ISP involved in the pure technical process of electronic transmission of data.

In R.K. Productions, the court was not informed of the introduction of these provisions vide the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012, despite the hearing happening on a date subsequent to the amendment coming into force. This probably influenced the outcome as well, since the court held that ISPs were liable to block access to infringing content, once the specific webpage was brought to the notice of the concerned ISP. Newly introduced Section 52(1)(b) however makes it abundantly clear that ISPs cannot, in any manner, be held liable when they are acting as mere conduit pipes for the transmission of information. This legal position is also materially different from jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom where, the ISPs though not liable for copyright infringement, are statutorily mandated to lend all possible assistance such as take-down or blocking of access upon notice of infringement being furnished to them. This dichotomy between liability for infringement on the one hand and a general duty to assist in the prevention of infringement on the other is explained clearly by the Chancery Division in Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation v. British Telecommunications Plc.[1]

In Newzbin2, the Chancery Division took note of the safe harbour provisions created by the E-Commerce Directive,[2] particularly Articles 12 to 14 that dealt with acting as a “mere conduit”, caching and hosting respectively. The interesting feature with the “mere conduit” exception, which in all other respects is akin to the exception contained in Section 52(1)(b) of the Copyright Act, 1957, is the additional presence of Article 12(3). This provision clarifies that the “mere conduit” exception shall not stand in the way of a court or administrative authority requiring the service provider to terminate or prevent an infringement. Article 18 of this Directive also casts an obligation upon Member States to ensure that court actions available under national law permit the rapid adoption of measures, including interim measures, designed to terminate any alleged infringement and to prevent any further impairment of the interests involved. Similarly, the court looked into the Information Society Directive,[3]

Article 8(3) of which provides that “Member States shall ensure that rightholders are in a position to apply for an injunction against intermediaries whose services are used by a third party to infringe a copyright or related right.” This Directive was transposed into the domestic law in UK by the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003, SI 2003/2498, resulting in the insertion of Section 97A in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This provision empowers the court to grant an injunction against a service provider who has actual knowledge of another person using their service to infringe copyright, such as where the service provider is given sufficient notice of the infringement. Finally, the Chancery Division also took note of the Enforcement Directive,[4]

Article 11 of which provided that Member States shall ensure that copyright owners are in a position to apply for an injunction against intermediaries whose services are used by a third party to infringe an intellectual property right. This entire legislative scheme compelled the court in Newzbin2 to conclude that an order of injunction could be granted against ISPs who are “mere conduits”, restraining them from providing access to websites that indulged in mass copyright infringement. The court reasoned that the language used in Section 97A did not require knowledge of any particular infringement but only a more general kind of knowledge about certain persons using the ISPs’ services to infringe copyright. Thus, it is seen that in the United Kingdom, though a “mere conduit” activity is not infringement at all, the concerned ISP can be directed by the court to block access to a website that hosts infringing content on the basis of the above legislative scheme. The enquiry should therefore be directed towards whether India has a similar scheme for copyright enforcement.

The Information Technology Act – An Inapplicable Scheme for Website Blocking

The Information Technology Act, 2000[5]read with certain recently framed guidelines provides for a duty that could be thrust upon even “mere conduit” ISPs to disable access to copyrighted works. This is due to the presence of Section 79(2)(c) of this Act, which makes it clear that an intermediary shall be exempt from liability only where the intermediary observes due diligence as well as complies with the other guidelines framed by the Central Government in this behalf. Moreover, Section 79(3) provides that the intermediary shall not be entitled to the benefit of the exemption in Section 79(1) in a situation where the intermediary, upon receiving actual knowledge that any information, data, or communication link residing in or connected to a computer resource controlled by the intermediary is being used to commit an unlawful act, fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material on that resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner. In pursuance of Section 79(2)(c), the Central Government has also framed the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, which came into effect on 11.04.2011. Rule 4 of these Rules, when read along with Rule 2(d), casts obligation on an intermediary on whose computer system, copyright infringing content has been stored, hosted or published, to disable such information within thirty six hours from when it is brought to actual knowledge of the existence of such content by any affected person.

One way of understanding and interpreting in harmonious fashion, the provisions of the IT Act and the Rules therein and the recent amendments to the Copyright Act, is to contend that the issue of infringement of copyright by “mere conduit” ISPs is governed by Section 52(1)(b), which completely absolves them of any liability, while that of enforcement of copyright through the medium of such ISPs is governed by the IT Act. This bifurcation suffers from the difficulty that Section 79 of the IT Act is not an enforcement provision. It is a provision meant to exempt intermediaries from certain kinds of liability, in the same way as Section 52 of the Copyright Act. This provision, read with Section 81, makes it clear that the IT Act does not speak to liability for copyright infringement. From this, it has to necessarily follow that all issues pertaining to liability for such infringement have to be decided by the provisions of the Copyright Act. Therefore, the scheme in the IT Act read with the Intermediaries Guidelines Rules cannot confer additional liability for copyright infringement on ISPs where the Copyright Act exempts them from liability. More to the point, the intermediary cannot be liable for copyright infringement in the event of non-compliance with Section 79(3) or Rule 4 of the Intermediaries Guidelines Rules read with Section 79(1)(c) of the IT Act. Rule 4 of the Intermediaries Guidelines Rules, 2011, to the extent that it renders intermediaries outside the protective ambit of Section 79(1) upon failure to disable access to copyrighted content, is of no relevance as “mere conduits” have already been exempted from liability under Section 52(1)(b). Moreover, since these provisions in the IT Act do not deal with enforcement measures such as injunction orders from the court to disable access to infringing content in particular or infringing websites in general, it would be wrong to contend that the scheme in India is similar to the one in the United Kingdom where the issue of infringement has been divorced from that of enforcement.

To conclude, Section 52(1)(b) is a blanket “mere conduit” exemption from liability for copyright infringement that stands uninfluenced by the presence of Section 79 of the IT Act or the Intermediaries Guidelines Rules. In the absence of a legislative scheme for enforcement in India akin to Section 97A of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, Indian Courts cannot grant an injunction directing such “mere conduit” ISPs to block access to websites in general or infringing content in particular and any such action is not even maintainable in law post the insertion of Section 52(1)(b). The decision to the contrary in the R.K.Productions case is incorrect.

[1]. [2011] EWHC 1981 (Ch.). Hereinafter referred to as Newzbin2.

[2]. European Parliament and Council Directive 2000/31/EC on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market (8 June 2000). This Directive was transposed into the domestic law in UK by the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, SI 2002/2013.

[3]. European Parliament and Council Directive 2001/29/EC on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society (22 May 2001).

[4]. European Parliament and Council Directive 2004/48/EC on the enforcement of intellectual property rights (29 April 2004). This Directive was transposed into the UK domestic law primarily by the Intellectual Property (Enforcement, etc.) Regulations 2006, SI 2006/1028.

[5]. Hereinafter referred to as the IT Act.