Three Canadian internet service providers have until the end of Monday, Sept. 12, to hand over the names of customers suspected to have illegally shared The Hurt Locker movie online.
"What makes this a particularly noteworthy case is it's the first big peer-to-peer copyright litigation in Canada in a number of years," said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds a Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law.
Geist said under existing Canadian copyright law, defendants could be liable for up to $20,000 in damages.
Bell, Cogeco and Vidéotron received a federal court order Aug. 29, signed by Judge Michel Shore, ordering them to provide the names and addresses of accused customers within two weeks. The customers in question are linked to internet addresses called IP addresses that are alleged to have been used to illegally copy and distribute the movie using peer-to-peer file-sharing applications.
The court order was requested by Voltage Pictures LLC, which owns the copyright for the Oscar-winning 2008 film about a U.S. bomb disposal squad during the Iraq war. The company has launched thousands of lawsuits against individuals in the U.S. alleged to have pirated the movie. According to the court order, Voltage wants the customer names from Canadian ISPs in order to notify them of their Canadian lawsuit and add them as defendants.
Cogeco said 10 of its customers are affected and Bell said fewer than 10 of its customers are involved. Vidéotron declined to comment.
Both Cogeco and Bell told CBC News they are complying with the court order.
Bell said it has no plans to appeal the order. The company added that it takes the privacy of its customers seriously and complies with Canadian privacy laws.
"We disclose customer information only when directed to do so by a court order and only to the extent required by such an order," the company said in a statement.
Ontario MP Charlie Angus, digital affairs critic for the NDP, expressed concern that the lawsuits are being used to intimidate innocent people en masse to pay large settlements to copyright holders.
"These are shakedown lawsuits," he said. "You send a bunch of threatening notices to people threatening to take them to court with all your lawyers and tell them to cough up some money — it's outrageous."
He said the case represents a "disturbing trend."
Flimsy evidence: MP
Angus added that IP addresses aren't very good evidence of wrongdoing, as people such as his own elderly mother may fail to secure their wireless network connection, allowing other people to use it.
"If a neighbour downloads the movie, then my mom's on the hook?" he asked.
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In February, when the movie industry was already launching Hurt Locker lawsuits in the U.S., Angus asked movie industry representatives at a copyright bill hearing whether there were plans for a similar approach in Canada. At the time, the movie industry representatives expressed surprise at the question and denied any such plans.
"I think this is an example of why it's so hard for politicians to trust these lobbyists," Angus said. "We have to have some clear rules that they can't pull this in Canada."
On the other hand, he added that he would be surprised if Canadian law lets the movie industry get away with this approach.
Geist said the lawsuit comes at a time when the government has proposed changes that would cap damages against individuals at $5,000.
Copyright law changes needed: researcher
"It's a sensitive issue because the government sent a strong signal that it doesn't want to see the prospect of huge damage awards for non-commercial, individual infringement," Geist said. "I don't think there are many people who would argue that $20,000 in liability for single alleged movie download is in any way reasonable or appropriate."
He added that it highlights the need for such changes to copyright law to be passed.
In addition to limiting liability for non-commercial copyright infringement, the government's copyright bill from the last session, Bill C-32, includes provisions to shut down pirate sites — something Angus believes is a more balanced approach than targeting individuals with lawsuits.
The bill died when the election was called this spring. Heritage Minister James Moore has indicated that the government plans to reintroduce an exact copy this fall. However, the bill could be delayed by a number of Supreme Court cases related to intellectual property.
With respect to the court order, Geist questioned whether the three affected ISPs did enough to ensure the interests of their subscribers. He said during recording industry lawsuits in the past, ISPs raised the concerns of their subscribers.
"These three seemingly did nothing at all," he said, adding that they could have at least notified subscribers and given the opportunity to get advice from a lawyer.