Paper Fences / Bad Defenses – Assumption of Risk

In Chinese they have a phrase zhilaohu (紙老虎) which translates to paper tiger. This phrase stands for something that seems fierce and powerful, but is really no more threatening than a piece of paper. The paper tiger is about imagery and illusion that is only meant to fool the gullible.

In litigation, there seems to be a growing trend to the use of affirmative defenses which are really just paper tigers, these might be called paper fences. These paper fences are not real defenses, just extra words that someone can throw on a page to justify their bill. Sometimes I wonder if even the people that file them on behalf of their client’s believe the false hope these paper fences represent.

Where these seem to be showing up more frequently are in the BitTorrent copyright cases. There are blogs and message boards where such things get shared and passed around among attorneys, and while everyone likes to share an idea, rarely does anyone share its failure. Someone dreams up an idea that sounds good, then word gets passed around and pretty soon everyone is adding the newest paper fence to his or her filings without paying attention to the rulings of the courts.

Assumption of Risk is one such paper fence that has no place in BitTorrent copyright defense. First, it is good to understand what the defense really means. An assumption of risk defense essentially states the plaintiff is involved in such risky behavior that it is expected that defendant will be reckless, as such the plaintiff accepts a possibility of injury.

Now look at why this does this not belong in a BitTorrent copyright defense or any copyright defense for that matter.

– Assumption of risk first dictates that the defendant injured the plaintiff.   The argument is the plaintiff, whose rights were infringed knew or should have known people would try and copy their work. To its logical conclusion the defendant comes to court and says, “I did it, but they should have expected me to do it.”  To allow an assumption of risk defense in copyright law would negate all copyright law.

– Assumption of risk is only valid against reckless conduct. A defendant will still be liable for any willful conduct. In BitTorrent infringement there is no reckless conduct. A defendant does not accidentally download a torrent file. All BitTorrent copyright infringement is willful.

There are other reasons, but suffice it to say assumption of risk has no place in copyright infringement cases and is nothing more than a paper fence that sounds good enough only to be sold to client to justify a bill. Just a little research reveals that assumption of risk has never prevailed as a copyright defense. As Judge Hegerty recently ruled, “Because an “assumption of risk” defense does not apply to copyright infringement claims, this defense cannot succeed as a matter of law and should be stricken.” Malibu Media, LLC v. John Butler, 1:13-cv-02707, (D. Col. Aug. 13, 2014).

As I review these cases look for future notes on other paper fences that often show up in BitTorrent Copyright cases including: Failure to State a Claim, De Minimis Infringement, and the counter claim of Non-Infringement, all of which seem to be making the rounds and do little more than run up costs and fees.

There really is only one defense to the copyright infringement claim, and that is the defense that the defendant did not do it and was not involved in any way. The rest and often just paper fences and, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” – Macbeth.

For the full opinion of Judge Hegarty cited above: Malibu Media, LLC v. John Butler, 1:13-cv-02707, (D. Col. Aug. 13, 2014).

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