Germany's highest court rules parents not liable for adult children's file sharing

It took a stepfather two appeals to avoid liability for the actions of his stepson

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

In a case that has gone on for years, Germany's highest court further reduced the legal responsibilities of Internet connection owners when it ruled Wednesday that parents are in principle not liable if their adult children use the family Internet connection for file sharing.

The decision follows a November 2012 verdict in which the same court, the Federal Court of Justice, ruled that parents are not liable for their minor's file sharing, as long as they warned their child that unauthorized downloading and sharing of copyrighted material online is illegal and they were unaware their child violated this prohibition.

However, when children are adults, parents don't have to warn them in order to avoid liability, the Federal Court of Justice ruled Wednesday. In Germany, the age of majority is 18.

In the case before the Federal Court of Justice, four German record producers sued the owner of an Internet connection that was used in 2006 to make 3,749 copyright protected music recordings available for download on the Internet via a file sharing network, the court said.

The songs were shared by the then 20-year-old stepson of the man who owned the Internet connection, the court said in a news release. The record companies however tried to recover €3,454 (about US$4,700) in damages from the stepfather who owned the connection, rather than from the stepson. While the stepfather signed an agreement that his Internet connection would not be used for that purpose again, he refused to pay, saying that he was not liable for his stepson's deeds, the court said.

Even so, the Regional Court of Cologne in 2010, and subsequently the Higher Regional Court of Cologne in 2011, ruled that the stepfather was liable for the copyright infringement. He was ordered to pay €2,841 to the record companies by the Higher Regional Court.

By making the Internet available to his stepson, the stepfather created the opportunity for him to take part in illegal online file sharing, the Higher Regional Court reasoned. Because this risk was there, it would have been reasonable to expect that the stepfather would have educated his stepson on the illegality of online sharing of copyright protected material and prohibited him to use file-sharing programs, even without having concrete evidence his stepson was doing this or interested in doing this, the Higher Regional Court said at the time.

Because the stepfather had violated this obligation he was liable, the Higher Regional Court ruled.

But the German Federal Court of Justice disagreed.

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