Internet service providers across Europe must take a greater role in blocking customers' access to websites offering illegal music and movie downloads, the London high court has ruled.
Some of the world's biggest film studios won a case forcing BT, the UK's largest ISP, to block access to Newzbin, a website that they allege has "flagrantly infringed" their copyright by offering unauthorized digital copies of films such as The King's Speech.
The 200-page ruling is the most comprehensive verdict yet in long-running efforts by content holders, including Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, to control piracy. Initial attempts to sue individual downloaders for copyright infringement proved unpopular with music and movie fans, prompting rights holders to chase sites they accused of facilitating large-scale piracy such as the Pirate Bay file-sharing site and Napster.
Pirate Bay, however, is still functioning more than two years after its founders were found guilty of copyright infringement in a Swedish court, and more sites are emerging faster than they can be shut down.
As a result, content owners are seeking to block piracy at the point of consumption through broadband providers.
"[The ruling]marks a big step in the global fightback by the content owners," said Joel Smith, an intellectual property specialist at Herbert Smith. "This is a major turning point ... ISPs can no longer hide or dodge legal responsibility."
The Motion Picture Association sued BT because it was the UK's biggest ISP and its members could not pursue Newzbin's operators or subscribers after the website re-registered in the Seychelles, beyond British jurisdiction. The Hollywood studios have already indicated that they intend to seek similar orders against other ISPs.
Although the European copyright directive, passed in 2001, has previously been used to force ISPs to block piracy sites in a handful of cases in Denmark, Austria and Ireland, legal experts say the London high court's decision has set a stronger precedent.
"The UK in many ways has taken more decisive action than lawmakers in other territories," said Gregor Pryor, digital media specialist at Reed Smith. He added that the precedent "has the potential to result in a flurry of less worthy court applications to block infringing content".
BT and other British ISPs, which have been reluctant to block sites, launched a legal challenge to last year's Digital Economy Act , which requires broadband companies to take a greater role in stemming piracy.
BT, which earlier opposed the application as the "thin end of the wedge", on Thursday welcomed the "clarity" provided by the "well-reasoned and balanced" ruling.
"One of the good things about the judgment is there is no suggestion we have done anything wrong - we are an innocent third party," said Simon Milner, BT's director of industry policy.
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