Ninth Circuit revives software download copyright infringement case

The main issue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Design Data Corp. v. Unigate Enterprise was whether the trial court properly granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor on the theory that one unauthorized download of a copy of plaintiff’s software was a de minimis infringement. The court held that the grant of summary judgment was not proper and sent the case back to the lower court.

Defendant claimed that it downloaded an authorized free trial version of the plaintiff’s software. But plaintiff brought forward evidence that it did not offer free trial versions. And plaintiff found evidence of the installation of two versions of its software on defendant’s computer systems, as well as patches designed to circumvent the software’s licensing requirements.

The Ninth Circuit determined that on this record, important questions of fact remained to be resolved surrounding the downloading and use of the software. Importantly, the appellate court held that the trial court committed error in determining that any infringement would have been merely de minimis. It was a mistake to have granted summary judgment in light of “the overwhelming thrust of authority” that upholds liability even under circumstances where use of a copyrighted work is of minimal consequence.

Another interesting issue before the court was whether defendant’s distribution of output files generated by its contractor’s use of an unauthorized copy of the software was actionable as infringement. The court affirmed summary judgment on this issue. It noted that copyright protection may extend to a program’s output if the program does the “lion’s share” of the work, with the user’s role being so “marginal” that the output reflects the program’s contents. But in this case, plaintiff did not put forth enough evidence to meet this standard, so the appellate court let stand the grant of summary judgment in defendant’s favor on this issue.

Design Data Corp. v. Unigate Enterprise, Inc
. — F.3d —, 2017 WL 541010 (9th Cir. Feb. 9, 2017)

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.