In this week’s news a woman is suing Apple for copyright infringement because two of the iPhone apps it sells are using pictures that belong to her. She complained to Apple but they did not remove the pictures. Details here.
.When should we hold a company liable for contributing to copyright infringement by others on its web site? I am not talking about direct infringement, when the company itself uses someone’s copyright protected work without their permission. That one is easy. They should be liable. But what if somewhere on the company’s web site someone else has posted material that violates someone’s copyright? In the early days of the Internet we still held the company liable, although we usually gave them a chance to fix the problem. They were not liable unless they were notified of the infringement and we gave them an opportunity to correct it, and they still failed to fix the problem. (See in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)).
These days web sites are so large, and the databases that drive the web sites are even larger. We have a company like Google that is trying to put every book ever written on its web site. Now we are starting to see cloud storage of music, and important files, and perhaps eventually cloud storage of everything. Has the Internet become too big to expect individual companies to be able to police their own web sites?
I was talking to an attorney from Facebook recently. I am paraphrasing what he said. If Facebook had to search its own web site for all the instances of a particular item, it would take months, or perhaps even years, even at computer speeds. Their database is that large.
In the case in the news, the woman used an iPhone app to take pictures which she then uploaded and posted on a picture sharing web site with the appropriate copyright notice. The iPhone app she had used copied her pictures, after removing the copyright notice, and posted them on the Apple App store web site to help market its app. She claims to have notified Apple at least six times prior to filing the law suit. I am not privy to the actual details of the case, but I find it hard to believe that Apple would intentionally ignore her complaints. I suspect they just have too much ‘stuff’ out there, and can no longer effectively police it all. According to Wikipedia, as of May 2011 the Apple App store had over 500,000 third-party apps officially available. That number is growing all the time.
So what is the answer? Do we let Apple get away with contributing to copyright infringement? Do we require that companies with large web sites/databases develop new techniques to police their sites? Or do we require companies to keep their web sites/databases small enough that they can effectively police them with today’s technology? I suspect that the answer will come from new technology, not from new laws. These companies will get better at policing their sites, and we as a society will get more tolerant when they do not do so as effectively as some people would like.
I would have advised this woman that once she posts something on the Internet, her ownership and control is effectively gone, no matter how aggressively she tries to police its use. That may not be fair. That may not be legal. But that is the way it is.