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German court finds parent liable for child's file-sharing

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Parents can be legally responsible for the unlawful behaviour of their children using home internet connections, a German court has ruled. It said that a woman had a duty to monitor the use to which her internet connection was put.

German law firm Dr Bahr has published details of the case, which was heard by the Higher Regional Court of Cologne.

A woman said that she forbade her children from using the home computer and internet connection to engage in copyright-infringing behaviour. Around 1,000 songs were made available from that connection, though, and the woman was sued by record labels.

The woman argued that she was not behind the making available of the songs and that it was due to the actions of one or more of her five children. The Court said, though, that the woman must be liable for the activity.

The case was an appeal from the original ruling, which also said that she should be responsible. The ruling said that living with the woman was her husband and five children, aged from one to 13 years old.

"Which children have used the port, she did not say," said the ruling, according to an automatic Google translation of the document. "In a response formulated by lawyers... the 'older children' are mentioned. It remains unclear whether the middle child is counted among the users or not."

"Given this overall lack of speech it must be the responsibility of the defendant for the alleged violations," it said.

The German Court heard that the woman had "constantly reminded" her children not to engage in illegal file-sharing.

Both Scots law and English law provide that a parent generally is not liable for the actions of their child, and that a civil judgment is as binding on a child as it is on an adult.

There are, though, some circumstances in which a parent can become responsible for the child's actions. That can happen when a child causes injury to others or where a parent has previously authorised or subsequently ratified the child's unlawful act.

"It is possible that someone could argue that a mother was authorising copyright infringement if she had turned a blind eye and provided the computer and the internet connection," said Kim Walker, a copyright expert with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.

"Cases in the past, though, have said that the fact that someone provided facilities which make infringement impossible is not of itself enough to make them liable," he said. "It sounds as if the woman in this case did make it clear that this was not how her children were to use the computer."

See:

* The ruling in German * The ruling in English (automated translation by Google)

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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