European Court of Justice Upholds Ruling That Public Wi-Fi Operators Are Not Liable For Piracy

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The European Court of Justice has upheld its previous ruling that shop, hotel or bar owners who provide free public Wi-Fi access cannot be held liable for customers who commit online piracy.

The long-running legal dispute dates back to 2010 when a visitor to Tobias Mc Fadden's lighting and sound system shop near Munich unlawfully "offered for downloading" a musical work belonging to Sony Music Germany using the shop's freely accessible Wi-Fi network.

When Sony Music sought to receive damages from the business owner, Mc Fadden took the case to the German regional courts, who, in turn, referred it to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg for deliberation.

Following a preliminary verdict in March, the court has now upheld its decision that business owners who operate freely accessible public Wi-Fi networks are not liable for copyright infringements committed by third party users.

"Consequently, the copyright holder is not entitled to claim compensation on the ground that the network was used by third parties to infringe its rights," ruled the court, adding that Sony Music was "precluded" from claiming any legal costs incurred.

It did, however, warn that operators of public Wi-Fi networks "may be required to password-protect its network in order to bring an end to, or prevent, such infringements." Such measures, particularly when users are required to identify themselves before obtaining the password, are proven to deter network users from infringing intellectual property rights, the court said.

Sony Music declined to comment on the case.

Coincidentally, the European court ruling arrived in the same week that the operator of New York's Wi-Fi kiosks announced that it was to limit their internet browser capabilities after the hubs became congregation points for homeless people loitering, drinking, doing drugs and watching pornography.  

The kiosks were introduced at the start of the year as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's pledge to replace more than 7,500 public pay phones and bring free Wi-Fi and phone service to every neighborhood in New York.

After months of complaints from residents, businesses and other elected officials, objecting to the way that the kiosks were being used, operating company LinkNYC announced that it was removing their internet browser "while we look at ways to enhance the service." The kiosks will continue to provide Wi-Fi, free phone calls and access to key city services.