Internet provider Teksavvy ordered to release names of subscribers accused of pirating movies

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Confessions of a cyber hacker

A Federal Court of Canada decision this week has put the Internet's so-called copyright trolls on a short leash.

In a decision released Thursday, the court ordered Ontario-based ISP TekSavvy to turn over the names of some 2,000 of their subscribers to Voltage Pictures, a Hollywood production company behind such movies as The Hurt Locker and Dallas Buyers Club.

Voltage suspects them of illegally downloading unlicensed copies of its movies and wants compensation.

The court granted Voltage's application to go after the alleged copyright violators but in his decision, Judge Kevin Aalto set limits to keep a company from acting "inappropriately in the enforcement of its rights to the detriment of innocent Internet users," The Canadian Press reported.

"On the facts of this case, there is some evidence that Voltage has been engaged in litigation which may have an improper purpose," Aalto wrote.

"However, the evidence is not sufficiently compelling for this court at this juncture in the proceeding to make any definitive determination of the motive of Voltage."

[ Related: What Ottawa’s new copyright laws will mean for Canadians ]

Aalto was alluding to the practice of sending "demand letters" to alleged copyright violators warning that they've broken the law and could face hefty penalties from a lawsuit unless they opt to pay the rights-holder a settlement right now.

The Federal Court ruling stipulates Voltage must clear the wording of any letter it sends to alleged violators with a case-management judge to ensure "there is no inappropriate language" in it.

"Any correspondence sent by Voltage to any subscriber shall clearly state in bold type that no court has yet made a determination that such subscriber has infringed or is liable in any way for payment of damages," Aalto wrote.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist wrote Friday in the Toronto Star the decision is aimed at putting a stop to a practice that's grown up in the U.S. and Britain of sending thousands of legal letters intended to spook ISP subscribers who may not be aware of their rights into paying up rather than going to court.

Geist, perhaps Canada's foremost expert on Internet rights, said on his blog that the decision was much anticipated. It was the first major "copyright troll" case in Canada involving Internet downloading, he said, though noting the music industry tried unsuccessfully to sue 29 alleged file sharers.

The government also has tried to discourage flooding the courts with suits against individuals who download for their own use (as opposed to commercial gain) by capping liability at $5,000 in a 2012 revision to the Copyright Act, Geist said.

Geist noted Aalto used a quote from a U.S. copyright case as the pre-amble to his ruling: "The rise of so-called 'copyright trolls' - plaintiffs who file multitudes of lawsuits solely to extort quick settlements - requires courts to ensure that the litigation process and their scarce resources are not being abused."

[ Related: Canadian company collecting info on millions of habitual illegal downloaders ]

Geist also said the decision required Voltage to pay TekSavvy's legal fees before the ISP disclosed its subscriber information, and provide assurances the information it released to Voltage would remain confidential.

"The safeguards are significant, since they ensure the active involvement of the courts in the sending of demand letters and likely eliminate unwarranted scare tactics about potential liability," Geist wrote in the Star.

"The big remaining question is whether copyright trolls will now view Canada as hostile territory.

"Given the cap on liability that the government implemented in the last round of copyright reform, court oversight on sending demand letters, the requirements to compensate Internet providers for their costs, and the increased expense the court involvement will create, copyright trolls may wish to look elsewhere as Canada could prove too costly for such dubious legal tactics."