copyright

The case of Guruji.com: Why the question of liability for Internet intermediaries is complicated

It was billed as India’s Google. But then it was accused of copyright violation.

In 2006, two graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi – Anurag Dod and Gaurav Mishra – launched a unique Internet search engine called Guruji.com from Bengaluru (then known as Bangalore). Using proprietary algorithms, Guruji.com sought to provide better search results in the Indian context. The search engine soon became extremely popular, especially for its ‘music search’, which allowed users to locate and play music from different sites, including “pirate” sites that hosted copyright-infringing content. From the time of its launch, there were murmurs of how Guruji could be the first Indian Google. Like Google, Guruji was founded by two young graduates from an elite engineering college, and like Google, Guruji had received funding from reputed venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital and Sandstone Capital. Here was a company that had everything necessary to succeed as one of the first desi Internet giants. Would it succeed?

The Bengaluru Police answered that question in April 2010 when it raided Guruji.com’s office and arrested its chief executive officer, Anurag Dod, on charges of copyright infringement. The arrest took place on the basis of a complaint under the Copyright Act made by Super Cassettes Industries Ltd, also known as T-Series. T-Series had alleged that Guruji.com had infringed its copyright in songs from the movies Om Shanti Om, All the Best, Bhool Bhulaiya, Aap kaa Suroor , and Aashiq Banaya Aapne and had demanded the arrest of the website’s CEO. Dod’s arrest was shocking because until then, arresting people for copyright infringement had been restricted to roadside vendors or small-time shopkeepers. Dod’s arrest led to Guruji.com wrapping up its music search engine and eventually shutting down the website; it is no longer active.

The most important question received very little media attention at the time. Was Guruji.com truly guilty of copyright infringement? Medianama , a news portal covering the Internet and digital space in India, wrote, “[W]as Guruji in the know of, and abetting copyright violation? We don’t know. Is exploiting a loophole against the law? We don’t think so. All across Guruji’s website, the emphasis is on music search. It doesn’t host or license the content, and repeatedly informs its users that it holds no responsibility for the content it links to.” The news report concluded with the hope that an eventual court ruling would cast light on intermediary liability for search engines and websites which acted as platforms for third parties to host their content, an issue that was in much need of clarification. For reasons not clear, it appears that there was no court ruling in the Guruji case. While these unanswered questions were addressed in subsequent cases and policy debates, the Guruji case highlighted why it was so important to have clarity on Internet intermediary liability, especially in a country like India, where the powers of the police can have the drastic effect of shutting down a company with billion-dollar potential.

Intermediary liability

The debate on intermediary liability is not about whether anyone should have a free pass to violate copyright law online. Instead, the debate is about correctly apportioning the liability between the person who uploads infringing content and the intermediary who offers the service through which the infringing content is disseminated. An intermediary could either be Google, which is a search engine that indexes the Internet; or YouTube, which is an online service provider that stores and publicly shares the content of third parties; or Internet service providers like Airtel or BSNL, which provide Internet connections through which services like Google are accessed and who may have the capability to block the infringers. In other words, any online service which merely acts as a conduit for information can be classified as an intermediary.

Under traditional publishing models, content was distributed only through books or journals where editors would curate content. Since editors had prior knowledge of all the content getting published, it was easier to hold publishers liable for it. But the Internet changed things. It presented a radically different publishing model where individuals could self-publish their content on platforms provided by third-party intermediaries like Blogger or YouTube or Facebook. The question now was whether the intermediaries hosting such content could be held liable for infringing material uploaded by their users? Similar issues arise in the context of ISPs who facilitate access to such infringing content through Internet services: Should ISPs have an obligation to monitor possibly infringing activity by their users?

Pre-screening content

Liability under the law in these cases arises only if the law imposes on intermediaries a duty to actively monitor the content being uploaded by their users. In principle, there is a strong argument to impose such a duty on Internet intermediaries because they earn advertising revenue directly linked to the type of content that is shared or accessed. The argument is that if they profit from infringing material, they should be liable for such content hosted on their websites

However, imposing a duty on intermediaries to actively pre-screen all content to protect against copyright infringement, would make the business of running an OSP, or even a simple search engine, very expensive, since massive resources would be required to pre-screen all content that is made available. Similarly, if an ISP had a duty to monitor all activity of users, it could make the cost of accessing the internet more expensive. Thus, there is an equally strong argument to offer limited immunity to intermediaries for the actions of their users, provided the intermediaries act fast to take down copyright-infringing content once they are informed. Requiring copyright owners to screen vast database like YouTube and issue takedown notices for infringing content, however, remains tremendously expensive for copyright owners, and there is a risk that small entities or individual copyright owners may not be able to afford an extensive monitoring network of all Internet databases. All in all, the question of liability for Internet intermediaries is complicated.

This is an excerpt from Create, Copy, Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas (OUP, 2017).

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.