The Court of Rome reintroduces the notion of “active hosting provider”: new uncertainties on the ISP liability rules

By a decision published on 27 April 2016, the Court of Rome held TMFT Enterprises LLC- Break Media (“Break Media“) liable for copyright infringement for the unauthorized streaming of audiovisual content owned by Reti Televisive Italiane S.p.A. (“RTI“).

Break Media argued that it was a passive hosting provider because it merely stored information at the request of a recipient of its service. Pursuant to Article 14 of the E-Commerce Directive 2000/31/CE, as implemented in Italy by Legislative Decree 70/2003, hosting providers are not liable for stored information if they are unaware of its illegal nature. Moreover they are not required to remove illegal content unless ordered to do so by the competent public authorities.

Further, the provider outlined that the notice sent by RTI was generic, failing to report the location (URL) where the infringing content were placed. Therefore, it imposed no legal obligation to inform the competent authorities under Article 17 of the Directive and no liability for contributory copyright infringement could be found.

In addressing the hosting provider’s arguments, the Court of Rome found the website owner to be liable.

In line with the previous Italian case law (cf. Court of Rome, October 20 2011, VVBcom.Limited and Choopa LLC; Court of Milan May 19 2011, RTI v Yahoo! Italia and Court of Milano, January 20 2011, RTI v ItaliaOnline Srl) the Court of Rome applied the distinction between active and passive hosting providers, based on the analysis of the activities performed by the entity in question.

The decision held that if a hosting provider is directly involved in the website’s operations by allowing users to upload videos and other content, it is deemed to manage the information and content that its users provide. In this case, the ISP would be regarded as an active hosting provider, subject to a duty to remove illicit content if so requested by the rights’ holder.

On the contrary, if a hosting provider merely provides storage and connectivity to specific websites, and plays no active role in managing information online, it should be regarded as a passive hosting provider, which is not jointly liable with website owner for copyright infringement unless it fails to comply with a removal order issued by the competent administrative or judicial authorities or is aware of the illicit nature of the content on the hosted website and fail to alert the competent authorities.

According to the Court, Break Media was an “active hosting” of media content. Indeed, the activity of Break Media was not limited to the activation of technical procedures for enabling the content to be loaded to the platform (“passive hosting”), but provided a complex service of advertising exploitation of the content.

As a result, the liability exemptions established by Article 14 of the E-Commerce Directive were not applicable.

Although RTI’s notice demanding the removal of the infringing materials from the platform did not identify the specific location of the content to be removed, the defendant was effectively aware of the infringing nature of the content. This knolwedge was deemed enough in order to affirm the provider’s liability.

Based on the above, the Court condemned the provider to pay damages for € 115,000, approximately corresponding to € 1.300 for each minute of unauthorized publication.

Reintroducing principles affirmed by the aforementioned case law, the current decision distanced from the decision of the European Court of Justice on the SABAM case (24 November 2011 in Case C‑70/10, Scarlet Extended SA v. SABAM et al.) according to which national authorities are prohibited from adopting measures which would require an ISP to carry out general monitoring of the information that it transmits on its network.

Based on the SABAM jurisprudence, the Court of Appeal of Milan, January 7 2015, overturning the Court of Milan first instance decision in the case RTI v. Yahoo! Italia, took the view that the distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ hosting providers should be regarded as misleading, being envisaged in neither the E-Commerce Directive nor in the Italian implementing Legislative Decree 70/2003. Consequently the fact that an ISP provides for services to organize contents published by its users should not change its role.

The issue provides matter of clarification for the Supreme Court.

For further comments look at the interesting analysis carried out by Maria Letizia Bixio on dimt.it

Jacopo Ciani

Court of Rome, 27 April 2016, Reti Televisive Italiane S.p.A. v. TMFT Enterprises LLC- Break Media

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