27 March, 2018

Boxed Up - Sharing of Software Add-ons Online is Copyright Infringement in Canada

The enforcement of copyright is never easy, particularly in today's world where access to infringing files, streaming websites and other means is almost as easy as simply searching for today's news. As infringers and suppliers of infringing materials become more and more sophisticated and clever, rightsholders have to pursue a wide array of cases of infringement. While direct infringement is often very easily determined, the facilitation of infringement by third-parties is always a tricky question (discussed more on this blog here and here). The Canadian Court of Appeal had to recently discuss this point in a very interesting decision.

The case of Bell Canada v Adam Lackman concerned the sharing of software add-ons on the website "TVAddons", operated by Mr Lackman. The KODI media player is an open source piece of software that enables the play of various types of multimedia. Various types of infringing content can be accessed using the media player when certain add-ons are added to it, which allow it to access and stream content hosted on the Internet; many of which were shared on the TVAddons website. Another piece of software was shared on the site called "FreeTelly", a modified version of KODI that allows a user to access infringing materials, and instructions on the installation and use of add-ons. Bell Canada objected to the potentially infringing materials shared on the website shared on the website and sued Mr Lackman for copyright infringement.

The case concerned an Anton Pillar order (discussed in more depth here), and whether the judge at first instance erred in their judgment on the order's standards' application to the facts at hand. The appellant argued that the court had mischaracterised their activities as infringing (when only a small number of add-ons were infringing), and therefore misapplied section 2.4 of the Canadian Copyright Act that deals with communication to the public.

The Court agreed that the judge at first instance had mischaracterised the activities of Mr Lackman (and TVAddons), and that they misunderstood the nature of their activities. Only 16 of 22 'Features' add-ons were tested, which doesn't even scratch the surface when over 1,500 add-ons are provided on the site. Similarly, the appellant's website, calling it a 'mini Google', when the provision of add-ons simply facilitated a quicker, more direct form of infringement by avoiding adds and providing easy access to links.

Having misunderstood the above, the judge had therefore also misapplied the law in relation to communication to the public. The Court considered that Mr Lackman, contrary to the decision at first instance, had communicated the works to the public, as "…the respondent’s website is not content neutral as it targets copyrighted content" by providing access to add-ons that are designed to provide unauthorized access to motion pictures and on-demand and/or live television programming. Having these add-ons, according to the Court, is akin to "…providing embedded links or automatically precipitating a path to copyrighted content". The same applies to programs that either aid in the installation of add-ons, or have pre-installed add-ons already to do the same.

In the light of the above the Court determined that the operation of the site clearly would not fall under the mere conduit exemption, but facilitates access to infringing materials. The site's branding also clearly encourages and highlights the site's purpose for the infringement of copyright through the add-ons, which additionally demonstrates clear knowledge by Mr Lackman of the hosted material.

The Court drew a parallel to the sale of pre-loaded set-top boxes in Bell Canada v iTVBox.net that allowed the user to access, for free, copyright protected content online. What is interested is that the ultimate source for the add-ons for the set-top boxes was TVAddons. As with the set-top boxes, the site would not be acting as a mere conduit, but a facilitator for the infringement of Bell Canada's rights.

Ultimately the Court did conclude that the judge at first instance erred in their decision and that Bell Canada would have a strong prima facie case for copyright infringement. Following the determination of likely copyright infringement, the Court also issued an injunction against TVAddons.

While the case's main focus was not the legal argumentation around copyright infringement, it still sets an interesting, a continuing precedent, where the Canadian courts are very likely to prevent the sharing of content online that facilitates infringement. This clearly now includes both hardware and software.

Source: Barry Sookman

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