This past summer, the Ninth Circuit released its decision in Fox Broadcasting Company v. Dish Network, holding that the lower court had not abused its discretion when it denied a preliminary injunction against Dish.
Fox had sued Dish after the satellite television provider released a set-top DVR called the “Hopper” along with two features: the first, PrimeTime Anytime (PTAT), automatically records all four broadcast networks’ programming during prime time hours, giving viewers a video on-demand type experience, and the second, AutoHop, allows viewers to automatically skip over commercial breaks while watching shows recorded by PTAT. Fox alleged that these features breached its contract with Dish, which prohibits the recording of Fox programs and requires that any video on demand services disable fast-forward functionality during commercial breaks. Fox also alleged copyright infringement because Dish exceeded the scope of its license.
The district court denied the injunction, unconvinced that Fox had demonstrated a likelihood to succeed on the merits at this stage of the litigation.
After the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, writers at the Fenwick & West blog made the following observation:
the Ninth Circuit left open what causation standard governs copyright actions. Following Cablevision, the district court purported to apply ordinary tort principles to determine whether Dish was directly liable. Despite the role that Dish played in operating PTAT, the district court held, and the Ninth Circuit repeated: “The user, then, and not Dish is the ‘most significant and important cause’ of the copy.” 905 F. Supp. 2d at 1102 (quoting Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 42); Opinion at 12. Oddly, this statement misquotes Prosser & Keeton’s commentary on proximate, or legal, causation. The treatise provides that: “[Legal Causation] is sometimes said to depend on whether the conduct has been so significant and important a cause that the defendant should be legally responsible.” Prosser & Keeton § 42. By substituting “most” for “so,” the opinions suggest that only one actor may be liable for direct infringement. This approach threatens to eliminate the ordinary rule of joint and several liability in favor of a new “primary causation” standard.
Oops. It’s not every day that a Circuit Court reaches a legal conclusion through such a glaringly obvious mistake. Broadcasters have rightfully jumped on this error in their petition for rehearing. Unfortunately, courts outside the Ninth Circuit have gone down the same road without being misled by a misreading of legal authority. The result has been a strand of copyright cases that seemingly stand for the proposition that only one actor can be found directly liable. With multiple actors, it becomes a binary, either/or question of causation, and any other liability can only be found indirectly.
This is a sharp departure from well-established legal rules concerning causation. What’s all the more striking about this departure is how little explanation has accompanied it in court decisions responsible for it. Such a dramatic change at the very least deserves far closer examination then what courts — especially the Ninth Circuit through Dish — have given it.
Joint Causation and Netcom
William Prosser, whose name graces the torts treatise that the Ninth Circuit misquoted, wrote in 1937 on Joint Torts and Several Liability, a guide of sorts to understanding joint tortfeasors. In it, he provides a taxonomy of situations where the law has historically recognized that multiple people can be held directly liable for a single harm. This includes, most relevantly, “Concurrent causation of a single, indivisible result, which neither would have caused alone.”
Where the acts of two defendants combine to produce a single result, which is incapable of being divided or apportioned—such as the death of the plaintiff—each may be the proximate cause of the loss, and each may be held liable for the entire damage. A common case is that of two vehicles which collide and injure a third person. The duties which are owed to the plaintiff by the defendants are separate, and may not be similar in character or scope, but by far the greater number of courts now permit joinder in one action.
Entire liability in these cases rests upon the obvious fact that each defendant is responsible for the loss, and the absence of any logical basis for apportionment. It is not necessary that the misconduct of the defendants be simultaneous, or that it operate simultaneously to produce the result; one defendant may create a situation, harmless in itself, upon which the other may act to cause injury. One may leave combustible material, and the other set it afire; one may leave a hole in the street and the other drive into it. The first defendant remains the proximate cause of the injury, so long as the intervention of the second is a foreseeable, or normal, “not extraordinary” consequence, which fairly may be said to lie within the scope of the risk created.
Relatively straightforward. But when copyright law entered the internet age, the idea that multiple actors could be liable for direct infringement began to erode.
One of the earliest cases involving copyright and online services, Religious Tech. Center v. Netcom On-line Comm. (Netcom), involved the unauthorized posting of copyrighted materials on a Usenet group. The copyright owner sued the alleged uploader, as well as the BBS service that connected the uploader to the internet and the internet service provider that connected the BBS service to the internet. When the court reached the issue of direct liability for the latter, it paused, noting that strict liability in this circumstance would “create many separate acts of infringement and, carried to its natural extreme, would lead to unreasonable liability.” The court likened Netcom to a machine that makes copies, and concluded that because the copies are made at the initiation of the user and without any further human intervention, Netcom, as owner of the machine, was not directly liable for the copies. It buttressed this conclusion with a nod toward policy, saying, “Where the infringing subscriber is clearly directly liable for the same act, it does not make sense to adopt a rule that could lead to the liability of countless parties whose role in the infringement is nothing more than setting up and operating a system that is necessary for the functioning of the Internet.”
CoStar: Putting the Stamp of Approval on Netcom
Netcom would be directly challenged several years later in CoStar Group v. LoopNet. In that case, which reached the Fourth Circuit, real estate photographer CoStar Group sued ISP LoopNet for directly infringing its photographs, which were posted by LoopNet users on LoopNet’s website. CoStar argued that Netcom’s holding was based on the expedience of preventing the internet from being crippled in its infancy. Now that the internet was more mature, and in light of the DMCA safe harbors that had been established by Congress, the “special exemption” was no longer necessary.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed and said that
While the Copyright Act does not require that the infringer know that he is infringing or that his conduct amount to a willful violation of the copyright owner’s rights, it nonetheless requires conduct by a person who causes in some meaningful way an infringement. … This, of course, does not mean that a manufacturer or owner of machines used for copyright violations could not have some indirect liability, such as contributory or vicarious liability. But such extensions of liability would require a showing of additional elements such as knowledge coupled with inducement or supervision coupled with a financial interest in the illegal copying…
But to establish direct liability … something more must be shown than mere ownership of a machine used by others to make illegal copies. There must be actual infringing conduct with a nexus sufficiently close and causal to the illegal copying that one could conclude that the machine owner himself trespassed on the exclusive domain of the copyright owner. The Netcom court described this nexus as requiring some aspect of volition or causation. CoStar Group 545-50.
You’ll note right off the bat that the Fourth Circuit did not embrace a “primary causation” theory like Dish would. It anticipates that multiple actors may be liable for infringement. But rather than looking for the “most significant and important cause” of a copy, it is looking only for a “nexus sufficiently close and causal” to the copying.
Even so, CoStar determined that an ISP that does not engage in intervening conduct when a subscriber uses its facilities to infringe on copyright is not directly liable for such infringement. Like Netcom, CoStar analogized the ISP to the owner of a copying machine, who at the most could be found indirectly liable for infringement if it, for example, had knowledge of unauthorized copying. CoStar also found that the requirement that there be “some aspect of volition and meaningful causation” was supported by the Copyright Act’s fixation requirement for copies. Said the Fourth Circuit, “When an electronic infrastructure is designed and managed as a conduit of information and data that connects users over the Internet, the owner and manager of the conduit hardly ‘copies’ the information and data in the sense that it fixes a copy in its system of more than transitory duration.”
Finally, CoStar notes that its endorsement of Netcom’s volition requirement serves an important public policy.
There are thousands of owners, contractors, servers, and users involved in the Internet whose role involves the storage and transmission of data in the establishment and maintenance of an Internet facility. Yet their conduct is not truly “copying” as understood by the Act; rather, they are conduits from or to would-be copiers and have no interest in the copy itself. To conclude that these persons are copyright infringers simply because they are involved in the ownership, operation, or maintenance of a transmission facility that automatically records material — copyrighted or not — would miss the thrust of the protections afforded by the Copyright Act.
The CoStar decision has not escaped criticism; indeed, it attracted a dissent. Circuit Judge Gregory agreed with the legal reasoning of the majority but disagreed with its characterization of LoopNet, believing instead that the ISP engaged in “non-passive, volitional conduct with respect to the photographs on its website such that the Netcom defense does not apply.”
Gregory notes that once a photograph has been uploaded to LoopNet’s servers, it does not become automatically and immediately accessible to other users. Instead, “one of the company’s employees can review the photo to ensure (1) it is an image of commercial real estate, and (2) it is not an obviously copyrighted image.” To Judge Gregory, this distinguishes LoopNet from a truly passive service provider, one that exercises no control over what is being communicated through its hardware.
LoopNet remains the pivotal volitional actor, “but for” whose action, the images would never appear on the website. Indeed, “volition” is defined as “the act of willing or choosing[;] the act of deciding (as on a course of action or an end to be striven for)[;] the exercise of the will … [or] the termination of an act or exercise of choosing or willing[;] a state of decision or choice.” Under any analytical framework, LoopNet has engaged in active, volitional conduct; its employees make a conscious choice as to whether a given image will appear in its electronic publication, or whether the image will be deleted from the company’s system. Nothing in the brief nature of LoopNet’s review makes the company akin to a copy machine owner or a security guard by the owner’s door. LoopNet is the publisher of LoopNet Magazine in cyberform; a volitional copier of images to whom direct infringement liability applies. Because I believe that the Netcom volitional defense should focus on passivity and the automated nature of the act — not the fact that a user’s initial volition somehow exterminates liability for later volitional acts — I would reverse the district court.
I believe Judge Gregory was correct on this last point. CoStar represents a slight shift from Netcom’s volition or causation requirement for direct liability to more of an “initiation” requirement. However, CoStar‘s conclusions regarding volition were at least still motivated by the same concerns as Netcom over cabining liability in a wide open communications network.
Cablevision and Dish: Extending the Volition Requirement Beyond its Origins
Cablevision represents the next shift away from traditional tort principles. Cable provider Cablevision was found by a district court to be directly liable for copying that occurred through its “Remote Storage DVR” (“RS-DVR”) service that allowed customers to save television programs for later viewing without needing a set-top DVR device. The court marshaled a number of reasons why Cablevision was actively involved in the copying of television programs: Cablevision designs, houses, and maintains the necessary equipment used for copying; it is involved in an ongoing relationship with customers, unlike the manufacturer of a copying device; the copying is instrumental rather than incidental to the RS-DVR service; Cablevision selects the programming that is available for recording; and it provides that content to its RS-DVR service [rather than a user providing the content to be copied]. In short, Cablevision’s RS-DVR service was “a far cry from the ISP’s role as a passive conduit in Netcom” and played a sufficiently active role in causing the copies to be made.
The Second Circuit completely rejected the district court’s conclusions on appeal. It paid no heed to Netcom‘s original desire to draw a line to keep the number of direct infringers at a limited and reasonable number and seemingly couldn’t get past the superficial similarities between the operation of the RS-DVR system and a set-top VCR. Devlin Hartline has criticized the decision, saying
Cablevision’s actions were far more proximate to the copying of particular materials than Netcom’s or the CoStar defendant’s ever were, and the rule from Netcom has been extended significantly past relieving mere passive conduits of liability for direct infringement. This leads to the potentially nefarious situation where no matter how instrumental a service provider’s actions may be in causing the unauthorized copying of particular materials—such as by Cablevision (1) supplying its customers with the source materials and the tools for the job, (2) making the copying as simple as pressing a virtual button, and (3) maintaining complete control over every aspect of its dedicated copy machine that existed for no purpose other than to make particular copies—that service provider would not be a direct infringer.
The Second Circuit gives little reason why it adamantly refused to recognize joint causation here. Both Cablevision and its customers are necessary, “but for” causes of the copying. There are no concerns that such a holding would render the entire internet liable. Nevertheless, the Circuit narrowed the element of volition even further than Netcom and CoStar to one of “initiation” or, perhaps, a “last deliberate intervention” requirement that results in a less likelihood there can be multiple actors directly liable.
And so we arrive at Dish. On a motion for a preliminary injunction, the district court adopted the novel “causation” requirement developed through Netcom, CoStar, and Cablevision to determine that Dish was not a sufficient cause of the copying on its service. This despite the fact that Dish has designed, houses, and maintains the equipment necessary for the copying. It determines what to copy, when to copy it, and how long copies are available for subscribers to watch. Users cannot stop the copying once it starts after the service is enabled. For the court, the only sufficient cause of the copying for purposes of direct liability was the user, when she enables the PTAT service.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding with little discussion, save for the previously mentioned misquote of Prosser and Keeton.
What Next for Volition
The shift in copyright’s liability standard that has occurred from Netcom to Dish calls out for more attention, as it has been as dramatic as it has been ignored.
One brief observation: much of the doctrinal confusion in these cases seems to come from a conflation between factual, or “but for”, causation and legal, or “proximate”, causation. The courts mentioned above appear on the face to be talking about factual causation when they are really talking about legal causation. By doing this, the courts obscure or ignore the policy considerations inherent in defining proximate causation behind a facade of what seems to be factual observations.
But any first year law student halfway through a torts class can see that Netcom, LoopNet, Cablevision, and Dish Networks are factual causes of the copying that has occurred. But for the design and maintenance of their systems and services, the copying could not have occurred. The appropriate inquiry is whether such acts should be considered the legal cause of the copying.
By recognizing that when courts have talked about volition they really mean proximate causation, we can have a more thorough discussion about how to apportion responsibility in copyright law. Much preferable to misquoting Prosser.