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New fast-track court for copyright disputes launched

By | Published on Wednesday 3 October 2012

Intellectual Property Office

The UK Intellectual Property Office has launched a new ‘small claims track’ at the Patent County Courts, simplifying the process for copyright owners who want to sue individuals who they believe have been infringing their rights, which could include suspected file-sharers.

Previously the County Courts were not equipped to consider such litigation, but under the new system they will be where damages claims do not exceed £5000, meaning copyright claims can be dealt with in a quicker, less formal and cheaper way.

Given that when rights owners target individual file-sharers, they only generally expect to get damages of a few thousand (despite the two high profile cases in the US where mega-damages have been awarded), the new system could be a popular route for any content firms wanting to tackle file-sharing this way.

Whether the cheaper fast track system will therefore result in an uplift in the number of such lawsuits being persuaded remains to be seen. In the main, the big music companies in the UK have resisted such litigation, and only a small number of smaller rights owners have gone that route too.

That said, if and when the three-strikes system put in place by the 2010 Digital Economy Act goes into action, rights owners might want to use the new fast-track system when warning letters, to be sent by internet service providers if the DEA system ever goes live, are ignored. The UK version of three-strikes doesn’t currently have a strike three in place, meaning such litigation would be the only sanction available until parliament revisits the legislation.

So, perhaps the new system will result in an increase in the number of file-sharers being sued, eventually if not immediately. Though, even if it does, the new system should benefit accused file-sharers also. Anyone who believes they have been falsely accused of copyright infringement will find it cheaper to defend themselves, and will therefore be less likely to just reluctantly settle out of court to avoid any further action (a tendency which some law firms were accused of exploiting, by sending threatening letters to file-sharers they never intended to sue, assuming a fair number would just pay up).

Which is possibly why those groups who have spoken out about against new legal measures to help rights owners crack down on file-sharing in the past have welcomed this latest development. Peter Bradwell of the Open Rights Group told ISP Review: “A less costly and complex route to justice is another important step towards intellectual property laws that are fit for the digital age. A small claims track will mean creators can access justice more easily when their rights are infringed. And it should help consumers defend themselves against lower value infringement claims”.

Meanwhile, the government’s Business Minister Michael Fallon confirmed the launch of the new fast-track system by telling reporters: “Small firms whose intellectual property has been infringed will have today a simpler and easier way to take their cases forward, by writing direct to the judge and setting out the issues. Lower legal costs will make it easier for entrepreneurs to protect their creative ideas where they had previously struggled to access justice in what could often be an expensive progress. A smarter and cheaper process is good for business, and helping businesses make the most of their intellectual property is good for the economy”.