The recent Australian decision in Roadshow Films Pty Ltd v iiNet Limited (No. 3)  FCA 24 was more than satisfactory to most of the users and Internet Service Providers. In summary, the Australian Federal Court ruled that an Internet Service Provider is not liable for its users’ copyright infringement as it does not encourage or authorise such downloads. iiNet was sought in court for enabling BitTorrent traffic and not barring its users from sharing files.
While the 200 page decision is more than interesting, one should note that the court had more than a challenge when needed to explain how BitTorrent actually infringes copyright. Copyright law has a requirement that the copying be of a substantial part of the work (s. 14, Australian Copyright Act). Therefore, a BitTorrent client, which provides small chunks of a file does not provide, copy or make available a substantial part, as any of the parts transferred may be irrelevant and insatisfactory in regards to copyright infringement (see more about BitTorrent at Stephen Knox, Diarmaid O’Cearuil, Nicola Scott Holland and Ljiljana Skrba, BitTorrent).
For example, sampling, such as in Girl Talk’s videos may sometimes be considered fair use, at least by the artist and it does not, at most times, sample a substantial part of the original work. BitTorrent, at least here, creates a material challenge to explain how a particular user copies a substantial part, as a user does not actually create a substantial copy. However, the court went on, and explain, in a rather meticulous way, how it sees BitTorrent as creating a copy of a substantial part of the work:
The Court finds that it is the wrong approach to focus on each individual piece of the file transmitted within the swarm as an individual example of an ‘electronic transmission’. The BitTorrent system does not exist outside of the aggregate effect of those transmissions, since a person seeks the whole of the file, not a piece of it. In short, BitTorrent is not the individual transmissions, it is the swarm. (…) The correct approach is to view the swarm as an entity in itself. The ‘electronic transmission’ act occurs between the iiNet user/peer and the swarm, not between each individual peer. One-on-one communications between peers is the technical process by which the data is transferred, but that does not mean that such level of detail is necessarily what the communication right in s 86(c) focuses upon.
Viewing the swarm as a copy of a work is an interesting initiative. It sits side-by-side with the legal problems which cloud computing may face, but the swarm is not an entity, it does not have a right for expression nor does it have an understanding of fair use, it cannot use legal defenses (such as the doctrine of first sale) in creating such copies and cannot be sanctioned monetarily. So who could be sought after?
Theoretically, let’s see a swarm for a popular .torrent, such as a movie: while some users may pirate content (according to a recent dubious study, the some is 99%), we can acknowledge that at least some of the people sharing a file have a good reason to do so. We can assume that at least a small portion actually bought the content and are downloading this copy as it is more comfortable to use on their computer (due to DRM restrictions, let’s say), some are actually selling their legal copy to a friend and using a private p2p .torrent to convey the first sale doctrine (Like Vernor v. Autodesk), some are conveying a copy as a fair use right, to create a derivative work in a research or for personal study of the work, and some are creating a digital archive or researching network behaviour.
Seeking out legal action against a swarm is problematic. You do not have an actual person which infringes, but a computer connected to a network; this computer could have been configured to automatically download content, for example, download automatically any popular movie using The Pirate Bay’s top 100, such download does not contain any human intervention and therefore is not an act of infringement, as infringement has to be done by a real person.
Now, let’s assume that the person actually views the movie. At least the Israeli and US Copyright Acts do not contain a provision prohibiting use, just copying. So, theoretically, such automated mean may be exempt from copyright infringement for personal use. In this very improbable case, no copyright infringement occurs in the swarm, and the swarm may be a copy, but not a copyright infringement.