On avoiding anxiety-inducing words in online terms of service

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Are “worldwide” “perpetual” rights really necessary?

Designer/developer Robert Nealan wrote a post questioning whether self-hosted blogging is dead. The piece is interesting as a commentary on the current state of blogging in general — a state that has changed a lot in the past decade or more, primarily due to the influences of outside social platforms, namely, Twitter, and more recently, as Robert notes and critiques, Medium.

The piece is a refreshing singing of praise for self-hosted blogs (like the one you’re reading). But another, no less important element of the post is an undercurrent shaped by a not-unjustified freak out of sorts over what third party platforms’ online terms of service say about their claim of rights in the users’ intellectual property. When we look to the terms of service for some of these platforms (and even more so if we actually think about what those terms say), we recognize that platforms quite often over-aggressively grab onto rights to do things with the content the user posts. So much depends on how these terms of service are written.

Lawyers can learn a lot from the commentary like that Robert Nealan has posted. As an object lesson and example, he takes issue with Svbtle’s terms, particularly the following:

Marketing. As a paid customer, you give Svbtle a perpetual world-wide license to use your company’s assets and logos, unless Svbtle agrees in writing otherwise. These assets and logos will be used purely for marketing and sales efforts, such as being displayed on the home page.

Good practice here would might consider adopting the ethos of certain “by design” concepts we see in the privacy and data security world. Think of “privacy by design” or “security by design” — the idea that a technology developer (e.g., someone building an app) should build the system in a way that it does not keep data around for longer than what is needed, and certainly for no longer than what the developer promises its users it will.

The same could be applied here — and it seems even simpler — for platforms to adopt principles establishing they will only exercise rights in relation to users’ intellectual property for only as long as they meaningfully need to do so. Let’s call it “Appropriate Rights by Design“. Words like “perpetual” and “world-wide” can be frightening. A platform hosting users’ content probably doesn’t need such extensive rights. If that’s the case, then the platform shouldn’t grab those rights. Those terms can be a red-herring. Robert Nealan took comfort in his piece in Medium’s terms which say that users of Medium “own the rights to the content [they] post on Medium,” and that Medium “[doesn’t claim ownership over any of it.” Funny thing is, a platform that grabs a world-wide, perpetual license could truthfully say the very same thing. So by not grabbing more rights than necessary, i.e., applying principles of Appropriate Rights by Design,  platforms will avoid having users latch on to scary words unnecessarily. For as long as this happens, it’s likely users will continue to have anxiety about moving to a third-party hosted platform, and in the same way, keep a light shining on what’s good about self-hosted blogs and other platforms.

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 fady habib under this Creative Commons license.

Right of publicity case against Shaquille O’Neal over a photo he tweeted and posted to Instagram moves forward

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A federal court has held that a plaintiff has successfully pled a claim of “appropriation” (essentially, right of publicity claim) against former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, for Shaq’s use of plaintiff’s photo on Twitter and Instagram. The case is useful inasmuch as it shows how courts will consider social media as providing a benefit to its user.

Shaq acquired a photo of plaintiff, who suffers from a condition that affects his hair, skin and teeth, then placed a photo of himself making a contorted face next to the photo, apparently to imitate the way plaintiff appeared. Given that Shaq has millions of followers, this garnered many, many likes and comments. (I of course won’t republish the image here, but if you really want to see it, just do a Google Image search using the parties’ last names.)

Plaintiff sued under several theories, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, appropriation, and unjust enrichment. Shaq moved to dismiss most of the claims. The court did throw out some of the claims (e.g., negligence — plaintiff has pled Shaq acted intentionally). On the appropriation claim, the court, applying Michigan law, held that Shaq had made use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness for his own purposes and benefit. The court rejected Shaq’s argument that plaintiff lacked any pecuniary interest in his identify, holding that the tort of appropriation under Michigan law “is not limited to commercial appropriation” and “applies also when the defendant makes use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness for his own purposes and benefit, even though the use is not a commercial one, and even though the benefit sought to be obtained is not a pecuniary one.”

The court went on to clarify that even if the tort of appropriation under Michigan law did require a plaintiff to demonstrate a significant commercial or pecuniary interest in his identity, plaintiff’s case still survived the motion to dismiss. “[A] plaintiff need not be a national celebrity to demonstrate significant commercial value.”

Binion v. O’Neal, No. NO. 15-60869, 2016 WL 111344 (S.D. Fla., Jan. 11, 2016).

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.

Seventh Circuit sides with Backpage in free speech suit against sheriff

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Backpage is an infamous classified ads website that provides an online forum for users to post ads relating to adult services. The sheriff of Cook County, Illinois (i.e. Chicago) sent letters to the major credit card companies urging them to prohibit users from using the companies’ services to purchase Backpage ads (whether those ads were legal or not). Backpage sued the sheriff, arguing the communications with the credit card companies were a free speech violation.

The lower court denied Backpage’s motion for preliminary injunction. Backpage sought review with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

The appellate court held that while the sheriff has a First Amendment right to express his views about Backpage, a public official who tries to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through “actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction” is violating the First Amendment.

Judge Posner, writing for the court, mentioned the sheriff’s past failure to shut down Craigslist’s adult section through litigation (See Dart v. Craigslist, Inc. 665 F.Supp.2d 961 (N.D.Ill.2009)):

The suit against Craigslist having failed, the sheriff decided to proceed against Backpage not by litigation but instead by suffocation, depriving the company of ad revenues by scaring off its payments-service providers. The analogy is to killing a person by cutting off his oxygen supply rather than by shooting him. Still, if all the sheriff were doing to crush Backpage was done in his capacity as a private citizen rather than as a government official (and a powerful government official at that), he would be within his rights. But he is using the power of his office to threaten legal sanctions against the credit-card companies for facilitating future speech, and by doing so he is violating the First Amendment unless there is no constitutionally protected speech in the ads on Backpage’s website—and no one is claiming that.

The court went on to find that the sheriff’s communications made the credit card companies “victims of government coercion,” in that the letters threatened Backpage with criminal culpability when, à la Dart v. Craigslist and 47 U.S.C. 230, it was unclear whether Backpage was in violation of the law for providing the forum for the ads.

Backpage.com, LLC v. Dart, — F.3d —, 2015 WL 7717221 (7th Cir. Nov. 30, 2015)

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.

Digital locker service not liable for copyright infringement based on user download of unlicensed ebook

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A boon for cloud service providers: Court decision protects locker service from infringement over user’s storage and downloading of unlicensed copy of ebook.

Plaintiff-author granted a license to defendant-digital locker service, authorizing users of defendant’s services to store and download sample copies of plaintiff’s ebook. Plaintiff later terminated the license. On two separate occasions, one of defendant’s customers — who had acquired a sample copy of the ebook during the license period — downloaded her sample copy from defendant’s locker storage service and onto her e-reader device. Plaintiff filed suit, claiming these post-license termination customer downloads amounted to direct and contributory infringement by the file locker service.

Both parties moved for summary judgment. The court granted defendant’s motion and denied plaintiff’s motion.

As to the question of direct infringement, the court relied heavily on Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings, 536 F.3d 121 (2nd Cir. 2008) to hold that a lack of evidence of defendant’s “volitional conduct” in distributing and reproducing the downloaded copies precluded a claim for direct infringement. Quoting from Capitol Records v. ReDigi, 934 F.Supp.2d 640 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), the court found that defendant “did not have a ‘fundamental and deliberate role,” such that it was transformed ‘from a passive provider of a space in which infringing activities happened to occur to an active participant in the process of copyright infringement.’”

Plaintiff’s contributory infringement claim failed under the “substantial noninfringing uses” test (the “Sony-Betamax Rule”) set out in Sony v. Universal, 464 U.S. 417 (1984). The court held that defendant could not be held liable for contributory infringement because its digital locker systems was capable of substantial non-infringing uses, and indeed was used for commercially significant noninfringing uses.

Smith v. BarnesandNoble.com, No. 2015 WL 6681145 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 2, 2015)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping clients in matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases dot com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alex Thomson under this Creative Commons license.

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