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Liability for Others' Content (Case Note)

Over five years ago, a Single Judge of the Delhi High Court indicated that MySpace had committed infringement against T-Series (in a decision which was not especially easy to comprehend). An interlocutory appeal was filed and on December 23, 2016, the legal position changed: a Division Bench of the Court issued a decision which drastically diverged from the findings of the earlier 2011 decision.

The Division Bench summarised its own findings in Para. 68 of its decision stating:
"  is held as follows (a)  Sections  79  and  81  of  the  IT  Act  and  Section  51(a)(ii)  of  the  Copyright  Act  have to  be  read  harmoniously.  Accordingly,  it  is  held  that  proviso  to  Section  81  does not  preclude  the  affirmative  defence  of  safe  harbor  for  an  intermediary  in  case  of copyright  actions. (b)  Section  51(a)(ii),  in  the  case  of  internet  intermediaries  contemplates  actual knowledge  and  not  general  awareness.  Additionally,  to  impose  liability  on  an intermediary,  conditions  under Section 79 of  the  IT  Act have  to be  fulfilled. (c)  In  case  of  Internet  intermediaries,  interim  relief  has  to  be  specific  and  must  point to the  actual content, which is being  infringed." 
In copyright terms, the decision of the Division Bench granted significant protection to intermediaries. What was particularly surprising and welcome about it, however, lay hidden in Para. 55: the Court clearly recognised the right to privacy and the possibility of the right being adversely impacted by certain mechanisms of protecting copyright. It stated:
"To attribute  knowledge  to the intermediary  industry  would mostly  likely  lead to its shutdown,  especially  where  content  is  of  this  magnitude  and  size.  Closure  of  website  and business  would  inevitably  follow,  for  instance,  if  messenger  services  like  Whatsapp  or social  media  portals  like  Facebook  or  Twitter,  (given  the  number  of  users  registered  with these  service  providers  as  well  as  the  volume  of  information  being  broadcasted/ “forwarded”),  were  held  liable  for  each  infringement.  The  greater  evil  is  where  a  private organization  without  authorization  would  by  requirement  be  allowed  to  view  and  police content  and  remove  that  content  which  in  its  opinion  would  invite  liability,  resulting  in  a gross violation of  the fundamental right to privacy."
This is (at least) the second time in the space of less than a month in which the Delhi High Court has articulated opinions which potentially save persons from liability for content which others post. In Ashish Bhalla v. Suresh Chawdhary, CS(OS) No.188/2016, the Delhi High Court held (on November 29, 2016) that WhatsApp group administrators are not liable for other group members' defamatory posts. In doing so, the Single Judge who issued the decision stated in Para. 17:
"...I  am  unable  to  understand  as  to  how  the  Administrator  of  a Group  can  be  held  liable  for  defamation  even  if  any,  by  the  statements  made by  a  member  of the  Group.  To  make  an  Administrator  of  an  online  platform  liable for    defamation    would    be    like making  the  manufacturer  of the  newsprint  on  which  defamatory  statements  are  published  liable  for  defamation.  When  an  online platform is  created,  the  creator  thereof  cannot  expect  any of the  members thereof to indulge in  defamation  and  defamatory  statements  made  by  any  member  of the  group  cannot  make the  Administrator  liable  therefor.  It  is  not  as  if  without  the  Administrator‟s  approval  of  each of  the  statements,  the  statements  cannot  be  posted  by  any  of  the  members  of  the  Group  on the said platform." 
While the Ashish Bhalla decision did not deal with intermediaries, these decisions appear to indicate that the Court does not intend to have technology and law be at loggerheads, or to have the rights of individuals be given short shrift.

[Note: In this matter, the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court attempted to balance rights; this is indicated by Para. 67 of the decision which contains the following text: "The court has – as always to tread a delicate balance between the Scylla of over protection (of intellectual property and privileging it in an overbearing manner) and the Charybdis 9 of ineffective or under-protection, of IP rights: both of which chill and kill creativity, in the final analysis, harmful to society." There's more, separately, on the argument that the Indian Copyright Act itself intends to have the rights of various stakeholders be balanced here: Copyright Law, Balance, and the Expression of Non-Partisanship.]