In the judgment of 20 February 2014 (I ACa 1047/13) the Court of Appeals in Katowice ruled that the owner of a computer and Internet connection may not be held liable for the infringement of moral rights based on the fact that they gave access to persons which may have made offensive statements in the Internet.
The case in question concerns a dispute between two neighbours, caused by offensive comments about the plaintiff made on the Internet. The target of these comments was accused of “stealing wood from the forest” and being a “cretin”. Statements suggesting the plaintiff should be “in a mental hospital” were also made. Due to the factual circumstances, the plaintiff and his wife believed the comments infringed upon their moral rights and decided to commence legal proceedings. Based on the analysis of the author’s IP address, the plaintiffs discovered the insulting comments were posted by their neighbour’s computer. As a result of this discovery, they sought a private prosecution indictment for defamation of character through use of mass media pursuant to the provisions of the Criminal code. They also filed a claim for relief based on art. 23 and 24 of the Civil Code. The defendant was acquitted in the criminal case.
During the civil proceedings, the defendant admitted that the defaming comments were sent from a computer owned by him. However, he also claimed he did not write the offensive comments, he is elderly, who knows little about new technologies and would not know how to access a forum to post offensive contents. Besides – claimed the defendant – all of the members of the household, as well as his youngest daughter’s friends, had access to the computer. The district court, which was handling the case, upheld the defendant’s position, taking into account his argument about his lack of computer skills. The court also decided the plaintiffs were unable to prove their neighbour wrote the defaming comments. As a result, their complaint was dismissed.
The litigation went to the court of appeal. The plaintiffs claimed the defendant’s liability should arise from the mere fact that he was the owner of the computer which was used to post the offensive comments. In the plaintiffs’ opinion, their neighbour should be held liable for the infringement of their moral rights, as he did not control the use of his computer by his family and his daughter’s friends, which in turn made the infringement possible. The court of appeal did not share this position and decided that:
„based on art. 23 and 24 of the Civil Code, it is solely the perpetrator, whose identity has not been established, who is liable for creating entries or posting comments defaming the plaintiffs. Any liabilities apply to the violator – the person who created and posted the aforementioned comments in the internet (…) The fact that the defendant purchased a computer, connected it to the internet, allowed his daughter to use it himself having no knowledge about the creation of the offensive comments in question by an unknown person cannot be considered evidence of his illegality”
Under the circumstances, the judgment made by the court of appeals appears to be correct. After all, it’s difficult to create someone’s liability on the mere fact they bought someone a computer. Just as it is, usually, impossible to hold someone accountable for giving someone a set of golf clubs in good faith, unknowing the recipient is not gentleman enough to use them in accordance with their intended purpose. That said, it is worth noting not only the perpetrator is held liable for damages (including those caused by an infringement of moral rights or copyright), but anyone who induced or helped cause the damage, as well as anyone who knowingly benefits from the caused damage (art. 422 of the Civil Code).