A federal appeals court ruled today that the BitTorrent search engine IsoHunt is liable for copyright infringement.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit found that the service, operated by Gary Fung, induced users to infringe copyright by uploading and downloading popular movies. Fung argued that IsoHunt was protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's safe harbor provisions, which generally say that sites are immune from liability for infringement by users -- provided the sites remove the material upon request.
But the appeals court found that IsoHunt wasn't eligible for the safe harbors because it induced users to infringe copyright. The ruling affirmed a 2009 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson in the Central district of California.
The ruling marks the latest in a long string of defeats for peer-to-peer companies since the courts shut down the original Napster in 2001. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that peer-to-peer company Grokster infringed copyright by inducing users to share pirated material. In another case, a federal judge ordered peer-to-peer company TorrentSpy to pay $110 million damages to the Motion Picture Association of America after finding that the site destroyed evidence relevant to the MPAA's copyright infringement lawsuit. And in 2010, a federal judge in New York ruled that the peer-to-peer company LimeWire was liable for infringement, on the theory that it encouraged users to download copyrighted material.
At the same time, some users who want to share movies or music now turn to digital locker services -- which have had a mixed record so far in court. Last year, the feds shut down the cyberlocker Megaupload, but questions about whether the service and its executives infringed copyright are still unresolved. Other cyberlockers have had some success in court. For instance, in 2011, a federal judge in New York ruled that MP3tunes was entitled to rely on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's safe harbor provisions when users upload pirated music. That victory proved to be costly, however. MP3tunes declared bankruptcy last year.