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24 March 2014
On February 20 2014, in Voltage Pictures LLC v John Doe, the Federal Court of Canada(1) ordered an internet service provider (ISP) to release the names and addresses of 2,000 subscribers alleged to have illegally downloaded a copyrighted movie using peer-to-peer networks and the BitTorrent protocol. This marks the first Canadian decision in which the Federal Court has ordered the large-scale production of customer information from a third-party ISP in order to identify potential defendants in an action for illegal downloading of copyrighted material from the Internet.
This decision represents a victory for rights holders seeking to address the large-scale downloading of copyrighted material from the Internet, which is widespread in Canada. The decision is also balanced, in that it encourages the court to impose strict safeguards to prevent the coercive settlement tactics that have sometimes followed such orders in jurisdictions outside of Canada.
The Federal Courts Rules provide for production of documents from, or the examination for discovery of, non-parties with leave of the court. Within the scope of this power, it has previously been established that the court may order innocent third parties to disclose information in their possession regarding unlawful conduct, including the identity of potential defendants. Such orders are commonly called Norwich orders after a 1974 UK decision of the same name. Norwich orders have become increasingly common in Canadian litigation, especially with respect to trademark and copyright infringement on the Internet.
Despite the availability of Norwich orders in Canada, such orders have typically been granted in cases involving a limited number of entities – for example, an order to obtain the identity of importers of infringing goods. In contrast, previous cases involving requests for the large-scale identification of individual subscribers from ISPs have not been successful. In its 2005 decision in BMG Canada Inc v Doe(2), the Federal Court of Appeal provided a framework to consider the issues on such motions, but ultimately refused the order on the facts of that case. The court in Voltage agreed with and summarised the BMG principles as follows:
In Voltage, the rights holder brought a motion to force the ISP to provide identifying information for 2,000 subscribers. The ISP did not oppose the motion, but the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) was given leave to intervene. CIPPIC filed evidence, conducted cross-examination and made extensive written submissions. The court carefully considered the balance between personal privacy interests and the public interest in enforcing copyright and concluded that the BMG principles properly balance these competing concerns. The court found that the BMG principles had been established and that Voltage's rights as a copyright holder outweighed the privacy interests of the affected internet users.
The court spent the balance of its decision discussing what limitations should be imposed to protect the privacy interests of the subscribers. The court was particularly concerned with the issue of 'copyright trolls'. In this regard, CIPPIC filed extensive evidence of the problem of copyright trolls in other jurisdictions which had filed multitudes of lawsuits solely to extort quick settlements through demand letters, without any true intention of pursuing litigation. The court noted that subscribers targeted by copyright trolls may not be the parties responsible for downloading the copyrighted work, and that defences may be available. Voltage was noted to have previously engaged in such activities.
The court concluded that safeguards are required to counteract a business model that coerces innocent people into settlements, often through misleading representations. The court identified a non-exhaustive list of 14 considerations to achieve this goal, including the following considerations which the court implemented, among others, in its order:
The decision is consistent with the willingness of Canadian courts in recent jurisprudence to issue Norwich orders and confirms that such orders are available to identify defendants in large-scale copyright infringement cases, provided that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect privacy interests and to prevent abusive behaviour.
For further information on this topic please contact Daniel M Anthony at Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh by telephone (+1 613 232 2486), fax (+1 613 232 8440) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh website can be accessed at www.smart-biggar.ca.
(1) 2014 FC 161.
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