Court Holds That IP Address Evidence Is Not Sufficient to Allege Claim for Copyright Infringement

Guest post by Cara Disheroon, attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

Cara L DisheroonIn Elf-Man LLC v. Cariveau, No. C13-0507RSL, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS (W.D. Wash., Jan.17, 2014), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington found that a production company’s complaint alleging copyright infringement for the internet downloading of its film, “Elf-Man,” did not state a “plausible” ground for relief when the company’s only evidence of infringement was the use of defendants’ IP addresses.

The production company initially filed an action against 152 Doe defendants for allegedly downloading the film using the BitTorrent application, which identified defendants through their IP address.  Following a dismissal of the Doe defendants in the original complaint, plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint naming eighteen individual defendants.  Four of these defendants filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the complaint failed to state a claim that was “plausible” under the Federal Rules.

The court agreed stating that plaintiff provided no factual allegations that supported claims that defendants directly or indirectly stole copyrighted material.  Noting that plaintiff alleged only that the defendants purchased internet access and failed to ensure that others did not use that access to download copyrighted material, the Court addressed the claims of direct, contributory, and indirect infringement in turn.   Regarding the direct and indirect infringement allegations, the court reasoned that the mere identification of defendants’ IP address “tells us very little about who actually downloaded Elf-Man using that IP address.”  Citing various other possibilities, including another family member, guest, or freeloader who could have engaged in the infringing activity, the Court found that plaintiff alleged facts that were merely possible.  In the eyes of the court, it was also possible that defendants simply failed to secure their connection against third-party interlopers.  The conclusory allegations of the complaint therefore failed to give rise to a plausible inference.

Regarding the indirect infringement claim, the Court again found that plaintiff’s complaint was conclusory and failed to provide facts that would support a finding that defendants intentionally encouraged or promoted the infringement.  Plaintiff argued that defendants should be held liable for contributory infringement “because they failed to take affirmative steps to prevent unauthorized use of their internet access….” The Court, while agreeing with plaintiff that courts continue to analyze contributory liability claims and that not all issues had been litigated, held that courts have fixed the requirement that defendant’s contribution to the infringement be intentional.  Absent this essential element of the claim, defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted.

The decision arguably adds to the already difficult burden of copyright holders to protect their works from online infringement but also demonstrates the balancing act of courts which require proof that a particular individual behind the IP address actually pirated the copyrighted work.

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