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AF Holdings, LLC v. Doe and Hatfield

District Court dismisses claim alleging negligence against owner of an unsecured Internet connection that was used to commit copyright infringement by a “John Doe” defendant, holding that plaintiff copyright owner could not articulate a special duty defendant owed it and that the Copyright Act preempted the negligence claim.

District Court dismisses claim alleging negligence against owner of an unsecured Internet connection that was used to commit copyright infringement by a “John Doe” defendant, holding that plaintiff copyright owner could not articulate a special duty defendant owed it and that the Copyright Act preempted the negligence claim.

Plaintiff AF Holdings, Inc., the owner of a copyrighted adult entertainment video, brought suit against John Doe, an unknown individual, for unlawfully downloading and copying the video using BitTorrent technology, and defendant Josh Hatfield, for allegedly failing to secure his residential Internet connection and thereby allowing the downloading to take place. The sole claim against Hatfield was for negligence, not copyright infringement. Hatfield brought motion to dismiss, arguing that AF Holdings failed to state a claim negligence and that, even if it did, the Copyright Act would preempt such a claim. The court granted the motion on both grounds.

The court first found that AF Holdings failed to state a negligence claim because it alleged that Hatfield committed an act of omission - failing to secure his Internet connection. Under California tort law, however, a person’s failure to act can support a negligence claim only where the defendant owes a special duty to the plaintiff. The court held that AF Holdings failed to articulate any basis for the imposition on Hatfield - who apparently maintains an unsecured Internet connection at his residence - of any legal duty to prevent the infringement of copyrighted works.

In the alternative, the court also found the Copyright Act preempted the negligence claim. Applying the traditional two-part test for preemption, the court concluded that the adult entertainment video undisputedly comes within the subject matter of copyright law, that the “extra elements” in the negligence claim, duty and breach of duty, were not viable, and that plaintiff was simply seeking to protect its exclusive rights from copying and sharing.