Religious Technology Center v. Netcom On-Line Communications Services, Inc.
907 F.Supp. 1361 (N.D.Cal. 1995)

  • Erlich was a former Scientologist who was now critical of the group. He posted some Scientology documents in an internet newsgroup. The Scientologists informed Erlich that he was infringing on their copyright.
    • In addition to sending notice to Erlich, they also notified Klemesrud, who owned the website Erlich used to post the documents, as well as Netcom, which was Klemesrud's internet service provider, and told them to block Erlich.
  • After Klemesrud and Netcom took no action to block Erlich, the Scientologists sued everybody for copyright infringement.
    • The Scientologists argued that when Erlich uploaded the documents, they were temporarily stored on Klemesrud's computer, then copies were made and sent by Netcom to places all over the internet.
      • That would be a violation of the Scientologists' right to reproduce, the right to distribute, and the right to publicly display under 17 U.S.C. 106.
    • Klemesrud and Netcom argued that they weren't responsible for what Erlich was doing, and they did not have the capability of screening their system to find every potential infringer.
  • The Trial Court denied Klemesrud and Netcom's motion for summary judgment.
    • The Trial Court found that the postings were definitely fixed enough to be copyrightable copies.
      • See MAI Systems Corp. v. Peak Computer, Inc. (991 F.2d 511 (1993)).
    • The Court found that Klemesrud and Netcom were not liable for direct infringement because the copying that occurred between the computers on the internet was incidental to Erlich's intentional copying of the documents to the internet.
      • The Court likened the Klemesrud and Netcom to a photocopy machine where the public can make copies.
      • The Court noted that if Klemesrud and Netcom were liable, then where would it end? Every computer connected to the internet copies data from other places on the internet, so the total number of potential infringers would be unreasonably large.
      • The Court found that even thought 106 is s strict liability Statute, there should be some element of volition or causation which is lacking where a defendant's system is merely used to create a copy by a third party.
    • The Court looked to Gershwin Publishing Corp. v. Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (443 F.2d 1159 (1971) which defined contributory copyright infringement as where "one who, with knowledge of the infringing activities, induces, causes, or materially contributes to the infringing conduct."
      • The Court found that Klemesrud and Netcom should have had knowledge of Erlich's activities.
      • The Court found that Klemesrud and Netcom did not relinquish control of their system to Erlich, and could have stopped him if they wanted to. Their inaction rose to the level of substantial aid, and could constitute contributory copyright infringement.
    • The Court defined vicarious copyright infringement as where a defendant has the right and ability to control an infringer's acts, and receives direct financial benefit from the infringement.
      • The Court found that there was evidence to show that Klemesrud and Netcom had the ability to control Erlich's postings.
      • However, the Court found that there was no evidence that Erlich's infringement gave any financial benefit to Klemesrud or Netcom.
  • Later Congress enacted 17 U.S.C. 512, which establishes "safe harbor" and provides immunity from infringement liability under certain circumstances for internet service providers.