Mass Law Blog

Secondary Liability and Sony v. Cox

by | May 26, 2024

Copyright secondary liability can be difficult to wrap your head around. This judge-made copyright doctrine allows copyright owners to seek damages from organizations that do not themselves engage in copyright infringement, but rather facilitate the infringing behavior of others. Often the target of these cases are internet service providers, or “ISPs.”

Secondary liability has three separate prongs, “contributory” and “vicarious” infringement, and “inducement.” The third prong – inducement – is important but seen infrequently. For the elements of this doctrine see my article here

Here’s how I outlined the elements of contributory and vicarious liability when I was teaching CopyrightX:

These copyright rules were the key issue in the Fourth Circuit’s recent blockbuster decision in Sony v. Cox Communications (4th Cir. Feb. 20, 2024).

In a highly anticipated ruling the court reversed a $1 billion jury verdict against Cox for vicarious liability but affirmed the finding of contributory infringement. The decision is a significant development in the evolving landscape of ISP liability for copyright infringement.

Case Background

Cox Communications is a large telecommunications conglomerate based in Atlanta. In addition to providing cable television and phone services it acts as an internet service provider – an “ISP” – to millions of subscribers. 

The case began when Sony and a coalition of record labels and music publishers sued Cox, arguing that the ISP should be held secondarily liable for the infringing activities of its subscribers. The plaintiffs alleged that Cox users employed peer-to-peer file-sharing platforms to illegally download and share a vast trove of copyrighted music, and that Cox fell short in its efforts to control this rampant infringement.

A jury found Cox liable under both contributory and vicarious infringement theories, levying a jaw-dropping $1 billion in statutory damages – $99,830.29 for each of the 10,017 infringed works. Cox challenged the verdict on multiple fronts, contesting the sufficiency of the evidence and the reasonableness of the damages award.

The Fourth Circuit Opinion

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit dissected the two theories of secondary liability, arriving at divergent conclusions. The court sided with Cox on the issue of vicarious liability, finding that the plaintiffs failed to establish that Cox reaped a direct financial benefit from its subscribers’ infringing conduct. Central to this determination was Cox’s flat-fee pricing model, which remained constant irrespective of whether subscribers engaged in infringing or non-infringing activities. The mere fact that Cox opted not to terminate certain repeat infringers, ostensibly to maintain subscription revenue, was deemed insufficient to prove Cox directly profited from the infringement itself.

However, the court took a different stance on contributory infringement, upholding the jury’s finding that Cox materially contributed to known infringement on its network. The court was unconvinced by Cox’s assertions that general awareness of infringement was inadequate, or that a level of intent tantamount to aiding and abetting was necessary for liability to attach. Instead, the court articulated that supplying a service with the knowledge that the recipient is highly likely to exploit it for infringing purposes meets the threshold for contributory liability.

Given the lack of differentiation between the two liability theories in the jury’s damages award, coupled with the potential influence of the now-overturned vicarious liability finding on the damages calculation, the court vacated the entire award. The case now returns to the lower court for a new trial, solely to determine the appropriate measure of statutory damages for contributory infringement.

Relationship to the DMCA

This article’s header graphic illustrates the relationship between the secondary liability doctrines and the protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Section 512(c) of the Copyright Act. As the graphic reflects, all three theories of secondary liability lie outside the DMCA’s safe harbor protection for third-party copyright infringement. The DMCA requires that a defendant satisfy multiple safe harbor conditions (See my 2017 article – Mavrix v. LiveJournal: The Incredible Shrinking DMC for more on this). If a plaintiff can establish the elements of any one of the three theories of secondary liability the defendant will violate one or more safe harbor conditions and lose DMCA protection.


The court’s decision signals a notable shift in the contours of vicarious liability for ISPs in the context of copyright infringement. By requiring a causal nexus between the defendant’s financial gain and the infringing acts themselves, the court has raised the bar for plaintiffs seeking to prevail on this theory.

The ruling underscores that simply profiting from a service that may be used for both infringing and non-infringing ends is insufficient; instead, plaintiffs must demonstrate a more direct and meaningful link between the ISP’s revenue and the specific acts of infringement. This might entail evidence of premium fees for access to infringing content or a discernible correlation between the volume of infringement and subscriber growth or retention.

While Cox may take solace in the reversal of the $1 billion vicarious liability verdict, the specter of substantial contributory infringement damages looms large as the case heads back for a retrial.

For ISPs, the ruling serves as a warning to reevaluate and fortify their repeat infringer policies, ensuring they go beyond cosmetic compliance with the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions. Proactive monitoring, prompt responsiveness to specific infringement notices, and decisive action against recalcitrant offenders will be key to mitigating liability risks.

On the other side of the equation, copyright holders may need to recalibrate their enforcement strategies, recognizing the heightened evidentiary burden for establishing vicarious liability. While the contributory infringement pathway remains viable, particularly against ISPs that display willful blindness or tacit encouragement of infringement, the Sony v. Cox decision underscores the importance of marshaling compelling evidence of direct financial benefit to support vicarious liability claims.

As this case enters its next phase, the copyright and technology communities will be focused on the outcome of the damages retrial. Regardless of the ultimate figure, the Fourth Circuit’s decision has already left a mark on the evolving landscape of online copyright enforcement.

Header image is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.