Culpability has become has become an ever-more-relevant question in cases of copyright violation, with technology making both the dissemination of creative works and the subsequent violation of creators’ rights easier than ever. The ultimate blame in those belongs to those actually perpetrating the acts, but our sense of justice and the system put in place around that notion seeks both to assign some responsibility and punishment to those who might have enabled misdeeds through direct action or negligent inaction. It’s something that we see from large corporations, where inaction is often the norm for a variety of reasons, although in light of one recent case, those same companies might feel compelled to get proactive.
Cox Communications is facing a colossal judgment from the jury in a case of copyright infringement, to the tune of $1 billion; not for infringing upon copyright themselves, but for not doing enough to stem violations committed by their customers. It’s an amount that defies logic and reason, as Techdirt suggests, and certainly stands as a case where the punishment far exceeds the crime, given that the crime is not stopping crimes, which most any internet service provider or tech platform is almost certainly guilty of in some measure.
The suit was brought by the member record labels of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), following a case brought by a single label that resulted in a $25 million settlement. In the BMG suit, Cox’s case was undermined by its inability or unwillingness to follow its own policy on suspending or terminating user accounts for repeated DMCA violations, though the reports of violations were so frequent and numerous that it would have proved impossible for Cox to enforce them, willing or not. Nevertheless, Cox found it better to settle, and the record labels clearly saw an opening to file their own suit.
Setting aside the problems with the DMCA and its enforcement, and any bad faith from record labels, the decision to tentatively award $1 billion in damages is an example of how broken both copyright enforcement and our laws on copyright have become. If we were to similarly punish every tech company that failed to properly enforce its policies, we’d have no more tech companies. And all of this comes at a time when individual creators find themselves victim to a similar type of weaponization of copyright enforcement. The laws should work, need to work, for the benefit and welfare of creators, but if they continue to be distorted to such an extent, they risk becoming meaningless to all involved.