Internet service providers can recover some of the costs of helping movie companies and other copyright holders find illegal downloaders, the Supreme Court of Canada says.
In a 9-0 decision Friday, the high court sided with Rogers Communications in ruling that the companies pursuing copyright violators should reimburse service providers a reasonable amount for the effort of looking up subscribers suspected of breaking the law.
The decision could end up saving Rogers and other internet providers many thousands of dollars, but the Supreme Court said the appropriate fees should be decided at a future Federal Court hearing.
The case began when Voltage Pictures and several other movie production firms asked Rogers for information about an alleged violator under provisions of the Copyright Act.
Rogers retrieved the information but agreed to disclose it only upon payment of a fee – $100 per hour of work plus HST.
Voltage Pictures and its movie company allies hope to eventually obtain the information of tens of thousands of suspected copyright infringers, and they argued the federal legislative regime precluded Rogers from charging a fee.
In 2016 the Federal Court said Rogers was entitled to levy the fee but the decision was overturned the following year on appeal, prompting the telecom company to take its case to the Supreme Court.
Rogers said the appeal was about who must bear the costs of enforcing copyright on the internet: the copyright owner who launches the proceeding, and who can collect back costs from an infringer, or a third-party Internet service provider, whose only option is to raise prices for its customers.
The Supreme Court ruling is “an important win for our customers and millions of internet subscribers facing open season on their personal information,” said David Watt, Rogers senior vice-president of regulatory affairs.
Rogers uses an automated system to send a notice to the more than 200,000 alleged copyright infringers brought to its attention each month – something it is required to do under the Copyright Act without charging a fee.
But Rogers said it should be compensated for the steps it must take when confronted with a court order from a movie company or other copyright holder for the name and address of a subscriber.
In writing on behalf of eight of the members of the Supreme Court, Justice Russell Brown noted Rogers undertakes an eight-step manual process to comply with such an order. But he indicated it was unclear how many of those steps Rogers must already carry out at no cost under the law as part of its routine functions.
Brown said Rogers and other service providers are entitled to “reasonable costs of steps that are necessary to discern a person’s identity” using the records it is required to keep.
He added that while these costs “may well be small,” it is impossible to determine them based on current evidence, meaning a fresh Federal Court hearing must be held to assess fees a provider can charge.
While agreeing with the majority, Justice Suzanne Cote went further, saying Rogers should be able to levy a fee for all eight steps it takes to respond to a court order.