The Federal Court recently provided us with an interesting copyright decision, in Bell Canada v. L3D Distributing Inc. (2021 FC 832), a case that dealt with devices called set-top boxes (“STB”) used to stream content on TVs. In that case, a group of Canadian companies was sued by content owners and licensees, to stop these defendants from continuing to market and sell their STB devices in Canada, and ideally also obtain some compensation based on infringement of copyrights.
To make a long story short, in 2016 the group of plaintiffs that included Bell and Videotron sued some Canadian businesses marketing STBs in Canada, based on fact that such devices were largely being used by purchasers to infringe copyrights as to pirated TV shows and movies. The plaintiffs basically argued that availability of STBs made it too easy for Canadian consumers, allowing them to find, download and watch pirated content on their TVs. Indeed, thanks to these devices and instructions provided by the defendants at issue, Canadians could too easily get round the usual predictions against availability of pirated content -hence the proceedings filed before the Federal court.
We should mention that the defendants at issue not only marketed STBs in Canada but did so by promotion and information that made it clear that the typical function and use of these devices was essentially to obtain access to pirated content. In short, there was nothing subtle about the fact that activities of the defendants relied heavily on benefiting from allowing consumers to infringe copyrights on pirated content placed online by third parties. Looking at the promotional and other materials produced by defendants, it was clear that the main use of the devices at issue was to secure access to pirated content, particularly once purchasers installed a third-party add-on recommended by the defendants to enable pirating.
The federal court started by concluding that the defendants had in fact infringed copyrights over thousands of series and movies, by essentially making them available by telecommunications to Canadians. For the court, lack of actual copying, uploading or downloading may be disregarded in a blatant case such as this, as the defendants basically made content available through their devices and activities. Even though the defendant did not actually do any of the specific acts reserved to copyright owners by the Canadian act, the court held that the defendants’ activities related to STBs basically amounted to making pirated content available, a conclusion which many now question, including it seems to go beyond the actual provisions of the Copyright Act.
Interestingly, the Federal court here also went as far as holding that these defendants infringed copyrights not only directly (by making pirated content available, as described above), but also by merely encouraging, or rather inducing, Canadian users who purchased STBs to seek, download and watch pirated content placed online by third-parties. This is new law for Canada, as the Canadian Copyright Act does not contain any provision dealing expressly with inducement as a basis for finding infringement, contrary to the Patent Act, for example. For the court, the fact that Canadian common law generally provides for inducement as a basis for liability justifies importing that legal concept into copyright law, notwithstanding the absence of such a concept in our piece of copyright legislation.
Based on these findings of infringement, the court granted injunctive relief (of course) and awarded the plaintiffs 31 million dollars in statutory damages, along with some punitive damages, for good measure. Ouch.
I should mention that, not too surprisingly, the decision at issue was the result of ex parte proceedings and was a default judgment. One may express doubts as to whether the result would have been the same had the defendants actually participated and made submissions.
At any rate, I guess we’ll just have to see whether Canadian jurisprudence does really continue to import here the concept of infringement by inducement in copyright matters.