One of the most significant legal concerns for Internet service providers is the risk of exposure to liability for the copyright infringements of their users. The concern is not unreasonable. Because Internet service providers can be held secondarily liable for the infringements of their users, and because this liability can come with statutory damages attached, the service provider’s potential economic exposure can be significant, especially for Internet service providers engaged in the transmission or hosting of user-generated content.
Moreover, the principle of joint and several liability may further increase this potential economic exposure for Internet service providers.
Under Section 504(c) of the Copyright Act, which permits a range of statutory damages for each infringed work, the principle of joint and several liability can make a defendant liable for multiple statutory damage awards for infringing a single work. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Columbia Pictures Television v. Krypton Broadcasting of Birmingham, Inc. two decades ago illustrates the operation of this principle.
The defendants in Columbia Pictures were three television stations that had directly infringed upon plaintiff’s copyrights independently of each other. Consequently, the company that owned the three stations was secondarily liable for their infringement. Relying in part on legislative history, the court held that the plaintiff was entitled to separately calculated statutory awards against each of the three stations as they were separate infringers, and that, with respect to these awards, each of the three stations was jointly and severally liable with their common owner.