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Record labels sue Charter for not kicking off music pirates

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Major music labels are suing Charter Communications for not kicking pirates off its service. Late last week, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal Music Group, and several subsidiaries claimed Charter had “knowingly contributed to, and reaped substantial profits from, massive copyright infringement committed by thousands of its subscribers.” Specifically, the complaint says Charter received notices that its subscribers were pirating music through BitTorrent and other services, but it refused to terminate their accounts. A similar suit has been filed against Charter subsidiary Bright House Networks.

“Charter did not want to lose subscriber revenue by terminating accounts of infringing subscribers,” the complaint reads. “Nor did Charter want to risk the possibility that account terminations would make its service less attractive to other existing or prospective users.” As Ars Technica pointed out, it actually comes close to suggesting that Charter promoted piracy simply by advertising high download speeds — complaining that “Charter has told existing and prospective customers that its high-speed service enables subscribers to ‘download just about anything instantly,’” and “told subscribers that its Internet service ‘has the speed you need for everything you do online.’”

The suit says that “tens of thousands” of Charter subscribers were flagged for copyright infringement, and it’s asking a court for damages that include Charter’s profits from maintaining these accounts. Charter told The Verge in a statement that “we will defend against these baseless accusations.”

Media companies have fought with ISPs (and their subscribers) over piracy for years. After ending a strategy of filing mass lawsuits against individuals downloading movies and songs, the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America teamed up with internet service providers on a “six strikes” program for scaring pirates straight. However, the program ended in early 2017, with the MPAA saying it hadn’t deterred a “persistent group of hardcore, repeat infringers.”

In 2015, music company BMG won a $25 million judgment against Cox for ignoring copyright infringement warnings. That was later overturned, but the ruling was enough of a victory for the RIAA to follow up with its own massive lawsuit against Cox — similar to the one that’s being filed against Charter now. Texas-based provider Grande Communications is also facing its own lawsuit, and last week, a court ruled that it could be held liable for infringement.

Grande’s and Cox’s cases hinged on whether they took reasonable measures to combat copyright infringement, which is one of relatively few things that internet platforms can be held liable for under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The details aren’t identical, though: a judge ruled against Cox for not obeying its own stated policy, and Grande for not having a meaningful policy at all. Charter will have to argue that it took meaningful steps to fight piracy — and that it deserves the safe harbor that was denied to those other ISPs.