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Small Claims Track Makes Court Best for Handling UK Internet Piracy Cases

Monday, Oct 1st, 2012 (1:29 pm) - Score 998

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has today introduced a new small claims track to the Patents County Court (PCC) that should make it easier for UK internet users to defend themselves against dubious claims of file sharing piracy. Rights Holders will also find the process a lot cheaper.

Until recently Rights Holders rarely pursued suspected cases of internet copyright infringement through the courts because it was expensive and law firms (e.g. ACS:Law, Davenport Lyons etc.) often found it more lucrative to pursue broadband ISP customers by sending bullying settlement letters (aka – “speculative invoicing“).

But such cases often place a great deal of reliance upon the Rights Holders ability to connect an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is assigned to your connection whenever you go online and made public while sharing content over a BitTorrent P2P (file sharing) network, to a specific individual. Several recent cases and rulings (e.g. here , here and here) have found such evidence to be very flimsy and often even inadmissible.

The reason for this is because an IP address can at best only identify the connection owner and any small timing error between an ISP and the third-party P2P logs could easily result in the wrong individuals being targeted. Most connections are also shared (e.g. families, hotels, public wifi hotspots, business networks, schools etc.), thus actually being able to identify the guilty individual becomes almost impossible. As a result Rights Holders often prefer to avoid the courts, while publicly blaming the issue on cost.

The Small Claims Court

Until today the small claims court simply wasn’t equipped to handle such disputes but the IPO’s new track aims to provide Rights Holders with the option of pursuing basic copyright disputes through an informal hearing, without legal representation. This is expected to “reduce the cost of pursuing Intellectual Property infringement cases“. Claims allocated to the new track will also be subject to cost restrictions of £5,000 or less to ensure they are proportionate to what is at stake.

Michael Fallon, Business Minister, said:

Small firms, whose intellectual property has been infringed, will have today a simpler and easier way to take their cases forward, by writing direct to the judge and setting out the issues.

Lower legal costs will make it easier for entrepreneurs to protect their creative ideas where they had previously struggled to access justice in what could often be an expensive progress. A smarter and cheaper process is good for business and helping businesses make the most of their intellectual property is good for the economy.”

On the surface this might sound a bit like it’s going to open the floodgates for thousands more people to be pursued by Rights Holders and that is possible. However, as hinted earlier, the small claims track could also be a double-edged sword for Rights Holders as the problem of fallible evidence is not one that can easily be overcome.

Furthermore consumers whom feel wrongly targeted and or bullied by such piracy claims now have an easier and more affordable means of defence than incurring the risk of a potentially expensive court proceeding. Whether or not this works in practice is yet to be tested.

Peter Bradwell of the Open Rights Group (ORG) said:

A less costly and complex route to justice is another important step towards intellectual property laws that are fit for the digital age. A small claims track will mean creators can access justice more easily when their rights are infringed. And it should help consumers defend themselves against lower value infringement claims.”

Mike O’Connor, Chief Executive of Consumer Focus, said:

High volume but low value copyright infringement by consumers has posed a considerable challenge to a system designed for high value business disputes. The small claims track is a significant step towards a cost effective and fair copyright enforcement regime fit for the digital age. It will allow consumers to effectively defend themselves without facing expensive legal fees. Alternatively consumers can own up without fear of having several thousand pounds of cost imposed against them.”

Sadly none of this looks set to prevent the first phase of the Digital Economy Act (DEA) from getting underway in early 2014 (details). This will require broadband ISPs to begin sending “notification letters” (warnings) to those suspected of having engaged in “illegal” internet piracy. But it might just weaken the case for tougher measures, such as account disconnection or other service restrictions, if Rights Holders are already perceived to have an affordable legal remedy at their disposal.

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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