Can You Get Sued for File Sharing on Your WiFi Network?

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If you own an open WiFi connection, you might have worried whether you're liable for any copyright infringement taking place on that network -- even if you didn't do it.

In a ruling that has caught the attention of lawmakers and attorneys worldwide, a Finnish court just ruled that owners of open WiFi networks can't be held responsible for others' activity, such as illegal file sharing.

Ars Technica broke the story late last night, but TorrentFreak has more details on the legal intricacies.

The court, which examined European Union intellectual property law, was charged with determining whether "the mere act of providing a WiFi connection not
protected with a password can be deemed to constitute a copyright-infringing act."

The case deals with a July 2010 incident, where illegal file sharing via unprotected WiFi took place at a woman's home.

Thing is, the reported piracy occurred during a theater exhibition at her residence, where there were more than 100 people present.

In other words, there was no proof that the woman who owned the network did anything wrong. Indeed, the file could have been downloaded by any of the attendees.

Ultimately, the Finnish District Court decided "that WiFi owners can not be held liable for the copyright infringing activities of third parties."

In the U.S., this subject is still up for a lot of debate.

However, the Finnish ruling seems to be in line with the U.S. policy, which could broadly impact international agreements on intellectual property issues.

One of the main lawyers to file suit against BitTorrent users, Marc Randazza, has claimed in court that open wifi owners are at least partially responsible for activities on their networks, and should be held liable because of negligence.

Others counter that users can't be held responsible unless they know infringing is going on, they intend for infringing to take place, and they "induce, cause, or materially contribute" to pirates' activities -- meaning people ignorant of illegal activities would be OK.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a bit more info on what's up in America.

Technically, owners of open wifi networks are "mere conduit[s]" for others' communications. And "under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, there is a safe harbor for service providers who offer 'the transmission, routing, or providing of connections for digital online communications, between or among points specified by a user, of material of the user's choosing, without modification to the content of the material as sent or received.'" This would cover both public wifi providers and ISPs.

Even if the law might be on your side, the EFF makes clear that it might not protect you from copyright trolls, who can use money to muscle settlements. A lot of confusion abounds on this issue: Recall that Boston College told students in 2011 that using a wireless router could be perceived as a sign of copyright infringement. And many still get copyright infringement warnings from ISPs because others use their WiFi.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.

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Danielle Russell
Danielle Russell

Why would a Wi-Fi owner be held liable? Neither should the ISP's, public hotspot operators or mobile wireless carriers. Even if a homeowner doesn't employ encryption on their router, it's still considered unauthorized access -- the same holds true for private proxy servers -- the encryption key is really intended to prevent casual or unintentional access to the router.

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