13 February, 2014

Domain Registrar Faces Infringement Liability in Germany

Internet Service Providers have, for a long time, been the favorite target of copyright holders simply because they are often the conduit between the infringer and the material which is being illegally copied, although their liability as secondary infringers has been rejected since. The Internet provides a web of connectivity between a multitude of actors, such as ISPs, computer manufacturers and others, who in some ways, do enable the infringement of copyright, albeit not as their primary function. As with the former Betamax recorders, the simple function of potentially enabling infringement does not incur liability, arguably at least in most instances, however a new challenge was set against web domain registrars in Germany.

In a recent decision (which can be found here, unfortunately only in German), the German Regional Court of Saarbrücken had to decide on the liability of domain registrars, and whether they could be held liable as secondary infringers should the domain owners facilitate the aforementioned infringement. The case concerned the website h33t.com, which acts as a torrent tracker site, much like the more notorious Pirate Bay. The copyright holders of Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines", Universal Music, took on the domain registrar Key-Systems, who registered h33t's domain.

Ed was confused about domains
In their decision the Court saw that domain registrars could face liability if the domains they have registered facilitate the infringement of copyright. If they are notified of the potential infringement of copyright, and choose to do nothing about the infringements, they could face liability. The Court imposed a duty to investigate onto domain registrars; a duty which can be argued to be quite onerous, especially for bigger registrars which manage vast numbers of domains. Key-System's general council, Volker Greimann, commented on the decision: "The courts’ definition of what is obviously violating is however extremely broad and the duty to act is expanded to deactivation of the entire domain even if only one file or link is infringing... If left unchallenged, this decision would constitute an undue expansion of the legal obligations of each registrar based in Germany, endangering the entire business model of registering domain names or performing DNS addressing for third parties". One can agree with Mr. Greimann as to the onerous nature of the new duty imposed on registrars, especially when considering the vagueness of the duty and the potential numbers of websites which might infringe copyright in one way or another.

The Court did mention that the infringements in relation to h33t were "...obvious and easy to identify", potentially presenting registrars with protection in cases where infringements are not obvious or are a result of negligence or ignorance. The Court in this instance ordered Key-Systems to prevent the infringement; however what those measures are remains unclear to this writer. Even though the domain is shut down by Key-Systems, its transition to another service outside of Germany can be said to be quick and painless - making the duty to investigate and take action both onerous, and arguably frivolous, as infringers will merely change service providers if their activities can be said to be illegal. Through this Mr. Greimann's argument of it hurting German domain registrars could be said to carry some merit.

Secondary liability has been a hot question since peer-to-peer services have made infringement much easier, and websites which provide users with, for example, torrent links, have become abundant. Whether liability should be extended to all middle actors can be argued to be potentially damaging to the Internet and its function. This writer does not have much insight into German law specifically, and people who might want to hear Universal Music's general council, Mirko Brüß's, arguments can refer to his opinion post here (again in German only).

Source: Bloomberg

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