No statutory damages in online copyright case where infringement continued after copyright registration

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If a copyright infringement begins before the plaintiff registers its copyright, and continues after the date of registration, can the plaintiff recover its attorney’s fees and statutory damages for the infringement that occurs after registration? The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana recently considered that question in the case of Bell v. Turner, 2016 WL 1270221 (S.D. Ind. March 31, 2016).

The prospect of recovering statutory damages and attorney’s fees is a big motivator for copyright plaintiffs. The Copyright Act (at 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(1)) provides that a plaintiff can receive an award of statutory damages — in lieu of actual damages and profits — in a sum not less than $750 or more than $30,000 for each infringement. If the copyright infringement is willful, “the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to an award of not more than $150,000.” And 17 U.S.C. § 505 provides that a successful party in a copyright action can recover its costs and attorney’s fees in the court’s discretion.

But statutory damages and attorney’s fees are only available if certain conditions are met. The Copyright Act precludes a plaintiff from obtaining statutory damages and attorney’s fees if the infringement of the work commenced after publication but before registration. The Copyright Act provides, at 17 U.S.C. § 412(2), that “no award of statutory damages or attorney’s fees…shall be made for…any infringement of copyright commenced after first publication of the work and before the effective date of its registration, unless such registration is made within three months after the first publication of the work”.

In Bell v. Turner, the court granted summary judgment to the defendant on the issue of whether plaintiff was entitled to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Plaintiff first published his photo of the Indianapolis skyline online in 2000. In 2009, defendant copied the photo and placed it on his website. In 2011, plaintiff registered the copyright in the work, but defendant left his copy of the photo online, even after the work was registered.

In granting summary judgment to defendant, the court cited to Derek Andrew, Inc. v. Poof Apparel Corp., 528 F.3d 696 (9th Cir. 2009) and observed that “the first act of infringement in a series of ongoing infringements of the same kind marks the commencement of one continuing infringement under § 412.” Because the defendant posted the photo online more than three months before the date plaintiff registered the work, plaintiff was not entitled to recover statutory damages or attorney’s fees, even though the infringement continued after the date of registration.

Bell v. Turner, 2016 WL 1270221 (S.D. Ind. March 31, 2016)


Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Website operator not liable for copyright infringement despite lack of DMCA safe harbor protection

Online platforms that allow user-generated content should take advantage of the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which protect the platform in the event of a third party claim of copyright infringement over the user-generated content. But the recent case of BWP Media USA, Inc. v. T&S Software Associates, Inc., 2016 WL 1248908 (N.D. Tex., March 25, 2016) shows that a platform may still avoid liability for infringement even if it has not availed itself of the benefits of the DMCA.

Plaintiff copyright holders sued defendant online forum board operator for direct and vicarious copyright infringement, over photos uploaded by users of the online forum board. Defendant moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion. The defendant successfully defeated these claims of copyright infringement even though it had not met the DMCA safe harbor requirement of designating an agent with the Copyright Office to receive takedown notices.

Direct Infringement

The court found there was no triable issue on plaintiffs’ claim that defendant was liable for direct infringement, because the parties did not dispute that defendant played no direct role in uploading the photos. Citing the seminal case of Religious Tech. Ctr. v. Netcom OnLine Comm’cn Servs., 907 F, Supp. 1361 (N.D.Cal. 1995), the court observed that “making an internet company liable for direct copyright infringement simply because it gave users access to copyrighted material posted by others would create unreasonable liability.”

Vicarious Liability

A defendant may be vicariously liable for copyright infringement where it “profits directly from the infringement and has a right and ability to supervise the direct infringer, even if the defendant initially lacks knowledge of the infringement.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 930 (2005). In this case, the court found that although plaintiffs contended that (1) the copyrighted photographs were displayed alongside paid advertising, (2) defendant received revenue from the paid advertising on its forum, and (3) the revenue received was based, in part, on the website traffic, plaintiff failed to point to any evidence in the record showing that defendant directly profited from the infringing conduct.

Observation: DMCA Safe Harbor Not Needed Here

Online service providers that make their platforms available for the storage of user-generated content (even if such ability is trivial, e.g., allowing users to upload profile pictures) are encouraged to take the appropriate steps to place the service provider within the protections of DMCA safe harbor. These steps include providing appropriate information in the platform’s terms of service, employing internal processes to handle takedown requests and repeat infringers, having a plan in place for dealing with counternotifications, and designating an agent with the Copyright Office to receive takedown notices. Being in the safe harbor means that the service provider has an affirmative defense if it is sued by a third party copyright holder for infringement causaed by the platform’s users.

Many have mistakenly believed that if a service provider fails to get safe harbor protection, it is automatically liable for infringement occasioned by user generated content uploaded to the service. That is not true, and the BWP Media case serves as an example. A copyright-owning plaintiff must still establish the elements of infringement against the service provider — whether for direct infringement or under a theory of secondary liability (like vicarious infringement) — even if the defendant does not find itself within the DMCA safe harbor.

BWP Media USA, Inc. v. T&S Software Associates, Inc., 2016 WL 1248908 (N.D. Tex., March 25, 2016)


Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Facebook’s Terms of Service protect it from liability for offensive fake account

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Someone set up a bogus Facebook account and posted, without consent, images and video of Plaintiff engaged in a lewd act. Facebook finally deleted the account, but not until two days had passed and Plaintiff had threatened legal action.

Plaintiff sued anyway, alleging, among other things, intrusion upon seclusion, public disclosure of private facts, and infliction of emotional distress. In his complaint, Plaintiff emphasized language from Facebook’s Terms of Service that prohibited users from posting content or taking any action that “infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise would violate the law.”

Facebook moved to dismiss the claims, making two arguments: (1) that the claims contradicted Facebook’s Terms of Service, and (2) that the claims were barred by the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. 230. The court granted the motion to dismiss.

It looked to the following provision from Facebook’s Terms of Service:

Although we provide rules for user conduct, we do not control or direct users’ actions on Facebook and are not responsible for the content or information users transmit or share on Facebook. We are not responsible for any offensive, inappropriate, obscene, unlawful or otherwise objectionable content or information you may encounter on Facebook. We are not responsible for the conduct, whether online or offline, of any user of Facebook.

The court also examined the following language from the Terms of Service:

We try to keep Facebook up, bug-free, and safe, but you use it at your own risk. We are providing Facebook as is without any express or implied warranties including, but not limited to, implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. We do not guarantee that Facebook will always be safe, secure or error-free or that Facebook will always function without disruptions, delays or imperfections. Facebook is not responsible for the actions, content, information, or data of third parties, and you release us, our directors, officers, employees, and agents from any claims and damages, known and unknown, arising out of or in any way connected with any claims you have against any such third parties.

The court found that by looking to the Terms of Service to support his claims against Facebook, Plaintiff could not likewise disavow those portions of the Terms of Service which did not support his case. Because the Terms of Service said, among other things, that Facebook was not responsible for the content of what its users post, and that the a user uses the service as his or her on risk, the court could not place the responsibility onto Facebook for the offensive content.

Moreover, the court held that the Communications Decency Act shielded Facebook from liability. The CDA immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties. The court found that Facebook was an interactive computer service as contemplated under the CDA, the information for which Plaintiff sought to hold Facebook liable was information provided by another information content provider, and the complaint sought to hold Facebook as the publisher or speaker of that information.

Caraccioli v. Facebook, 2016 WL 859863 (N.D. Cal., March 7, 2016)

About the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Court holds browsewrap agreement not enforceable

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Plaintiff filed a consumer fraud class action lawsuit against defendant, the operator of an ecommerce website. Defendant moved to have the case heard by arbitration, arguing that the arbitration provision in its website’s terms of use required the dispute to be arbitrated instead of heard in court. The terms of use were in the form of a “browsewrap” agreement — viewable by a hyperlink displayed at the bottom of each page of defendant’s website.

The court denied the motion, finding that the hyperlink to the terms of use (containing the arbitration provision) was too inconspicuous to put a reasonably prudent internet consumer on inquiry notice. Since the agreement was not enforceable, plaintiffs were not bound by the arbitration provision. Defendant sought review with the California Court of Appeal. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court.

It observed that for a browsewrap agreement to be enforceable, a court must infer that the end user assented to its terms. This may be more difficult to show than in situations involving “clickwrap” agreements, which require the user to affirmatively do something, such as check a box, to indicate his or her assent to the terms of use.

In this case, the court held that although an especially observant internet consumer could spot the defendant’s terms of use hyperlinks on some checkout flow pages without scrolling, that quality alone was not all that was required to establish the existence of an enforceable browsewrap agreement. Rather, as the Second Circuit observed in Specht v. Netscape, 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir.2002), “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility.”

Here, the defendant’s terms of use hyperlinks — their placement, color, size and other qualities relative to defendant’s website’s overall design — were simply too inconspicuous to meet that standard.

Long v. Provide Commerce, Inc., — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2016 WL 1056555 (Cal Ct. App., March 17, 2016)

About the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Patrick Finnegan under this Creative Commons license.

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