We’ve written in the past about the UK going a bit nuts in ordering ISPs to block sites over potential copyright infringement, often using questionable logic and little concern for the unintended consequences of out and out censorship. Now it’s reached a new, somewhat ridiculous level, in which a court has sided with various Hollywood studios in ordering a bunch of websites be blocked for merely distributing versions of the Popcorn Time software, even as the judge admits the studios’ argument doesn’t make much sense, since the sites themselves don’t offer any infringing material, and no infringement flows through the sites themselves.
The court clearly recognizes that a site distributing Popcorn Time is quite different from torrent sites or streaming sites:
So the operators of both BitTorrent sites and streaming website sites have been held to infringe copyright by communication to the public even though the infringing copy of the copyright work itself does not come directly from those websites but because the sites contain catalogued and indexed connections to the sources of those copies. The website operators are held to have intervened in a highly material way to make the copyright works available to a new audience and to infringe.
The difference with the Popcorn Time system is that now it is the application itself running on the user’s computer which presents to the user catalogued and indexed connections to the sources of the copies. If a PTAS site is purely the source from which the Popcorn Time application software is downloaded and the application itself, once operational on the user’s computer, never connects back to the PTAS site then can the reasoning employed in the earlier cases apply? I do not believe it can. I cannot see how the operator of the PTAS website commits an act of communicating copyright works to the public. The PTAS site simply does not communicate any copyright works to anybody. There is no transmission (or retransmission) of the copyright work at all. What the PTAS site makes available is a tool. The tool is the Popcorn Time application. From the point of view of the user, the PTAS site is not the place at which they encounter a catalogue or index of content. It is the Popcorn Time application, when running on the user’s computer, that provides catalogued and indexed connections to the sources of infringing copies of the claimants’ copyright works. The operators of the PTAS sites are facilitating the making available of the content by providing this tool but that is a different matter. In my judgment the scope of the act of communication to the public cannot be stretched as far as to cover the operation of a site which simply makes the Popcorn Time application itself available for download.
Accordingly I am not satisfied that the operators of the PTAS websites Popcorn Time IO, Flixtor, and Movie Panda are committing an act of communication copyright works.
So, don’t order them blocked, right? Not so fast…
The issue I have to decide is whether the suppliers of the Popcorn Time applications are jointly liable with the operators of the host websites. In my judgment they are. The Popcorn Time application is the key means which procures and induces the user to access the host website and therefore causes the infringing communications to occur. The suppliers of Popcorn Time plainly know and intend that to be the case. They provide the software and provide the information to keep the indexes up to date. I find that the suppliers of Popcorn Time have a common design with the operators of the host websites to secure the communication to the public of the claimants’ protected works, thereby infringing copyright.
Although I am not satisfied in relation to communication to the public or authorisation by the operators of the Popcorn Time websites, I am satisfied that the operators of these websites (both PTAS and SUI) are jointly liable for the infringements committed by the operators of the host websites.
I understand the logic. The judge is arguing that these tools are mainly used for infringement, and thus that alone should make them somehow responsible and thus they can be blocked. But, that is one slippery slope if you follow that logic all the way down. Under that logic, the VCR should never have been allowed. In the early days — before Hollywood figured out how to make use of them to the studios’ advantage — most VCR usage was not for authorized content. Ditto for many other innovations as well. Yet, rather than outlawing them, we allowed them to develop, and the industry eventually figured out how to use them properly.
Thanks to this kind of ruling, that will never happen with Popcorn Time (in the UK at least), and that seems pretty dangerous. It’s yet another case of Hollywood shutting down what it fears, rather than learning to embrace it and give users what they want.