Author Archives: Evan Brown (@internetcases)

Facebook hacking that causes emotional distress – does the CFAA provide recovery?

A recent federal case from Virginia provides information on the types of “losses” that are actionable under the federal anti-hacking statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”).

Unauthorized Access Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Underlying facts

Plaintiff worked as a campaign manager, communications director and private sector employee of a Virginia state legislator. While plaintiff was in the hospital, defendant allegedly, without authorization, accessed plaintiff’s Facebook, Gmail and Google Docs accounts, and tried to access her Wells Fargo online account.

Plaintiff’s lawsuit

Plaintiff sued, alleging a number of claims, among them a claim for violation of the CFAA. Defendant moved to dismiss. Although the court denied the motion to dismiss on other grounds, it held that plaintiff’s alleged emotional distress was not the type of “loss” that is actionable under the CFAA.

Loss under the CFAA

One can bring a civil action under the CFAA if the defendant’s alleged conduct involves certain factors. One of those factors, set out at 18 U.S.C. § 1030(c)(4)(A)(i)(II), provides recovery if there is “the modification or impairment, or potential modification or impairment, of the medical examination, diagnosis, treatment, or care of 1 or more individuals”.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant’s unauthorized access and attempted access to her accounts caused her to sustain a “loss” under this definition because it caused her to suffer emotional distress for which she needed to seek counseling.

The court disagreed with plaintiff’s assertions. Essentially, the court held, the modification of or impairment of a plaintiff’s treatment must be based on impairment due to the ability to access or used deleted or corrupted medical records. As an example – this was not in the court’s opinion but is provided by the author of this post – one might be able to state a claim if, for example, medical records were modified by a hacker to change prescription information. Further, the court held, to recover under the relevant provision of the CFAA, a defendant’s violation must modify or impair an individual’s medical treatment as it already exists, not merely cause the plaintiff mental pain and suffering that requires additional care.

Hains v. Adams, 2019 WL 5929259 (E.D. Virginia, November 12, 2019)

Real estate brokerage may be liable for its agent’s copyright infringement

Case underscores reason why companies using independent contractors should consider negotiating provisions that require those independent contractors to indemnify the company in the event of third party intellectual property claims.

Plaintiff’s claims

Plaintiff photographer sued a real estate brokerage firm and the firm’s independent agent who published on her brokerage-branded website one of plaintiff’s photos without authorization. Plaintiff asserted a direct infringement claim against the agent, and a vicarious infringement claim against the brokerage. Defendant brokerage firm moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court denied the motion.

vicarious copyright liability

Elements of vicarious copyright infringement

To state a claim for vicarious copyright infringement, in addition to stating a claim for direct infringement by the agent, the plaintiff had to successfully plead that the brokerage (1) had a direct financial interest in the appearance of the infringing photo on its agent’s website, and (2) had the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity.

The court’s decision

On the first element of vicarious copyright infringement, the court found that plaintiff adequately alleged that defendant brokerage had a direct financial interest in defendant agent’s use of the photo on her website. Defendant agent was defendant brokerage’s sponsored agent, and it was plausible that her use of the photo to enhance the appeal of her website provided both defendant agent and defendant brokerage with a direct financial benefit in the form of increased business.

As for the second element – right and ability to supervise – the court found that plaintiff’s undisputed allegation that defendant agent was a licensed real estate agent under defendant brokerage’s sponsorship, coupled with defendant brokerage’s statutory obligation to supervise defendant agent’s actions, were sufficient to state a plausible claim that defendant brokerage had the right and ability to supervise defendant agent’s infringing activity.

The parties disputed the level of supervision and control that defendant brokerage had, and the “right and ability” to exercise control over defendant agent’s activity on her website.

Plaintiff asserted that the website was one published by the defendant brokerage, while the defendant brokerage disclaimed all responsibility for the website. Yet regardless of which party actually exercised direct control over the website, the fact remained – in the court’s view – that defendant agent carried out the alleged copyright infringement on the website under the auspices of defendant brokerage’s sponsorship, and defendant brokerage had a statutory obligation to supervise her conduct as a sponsored agent.

Moreover, although defendant agent could hypothetically continue her alleged infringement in a different setting were defendant brokerage to terminate her sponsorship, the undisputed fact that defendant brokerage could have terminated her sponsorship lent further support to the inference that defendant brokerage had the right and ability to supervise defendant agent’s infringing acts.

Stross v. PR Advisors, LLC, 2019 WL 5697225 (N.D. Tex. October 31, 2019)

Ninth Circuit won’t stop electricity cost increase for blockchain companies

Plaintiffs provide “verification and security services for blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.” Grant County, Washington decided to charge plaintiffs and others in “evolving industries” more for electricity. Plaintiffs sued and tried to get an injunction against the rate increase.

blockchain

The lower court denied the preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the preliminary injunction.

It held that simple monetary harm would not constitute an immediate threat of irreparable harm that would be appropriately remedied by an injunction. Although a legitimate threat that a company might face bankruptcy or be driven out of business may constitute irreparable harm, in this case, plaintiffs failed to introduce competent evidence that they would be driven out of business because of the increased rates.

Blocktree Propterties, LLC. v. Pub. Utility Dist. No. 2 of Grant County, 2019 WL 5704281 (9th Cir. November 5, 2019)

Does a plaintiff claiming unlawful removal of copyright management information have to own a registered copyright?

Plaintiff sued defendants for violation of the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) that prohibit one from intentionally removing or altering any copyright management information (“CMI”) with the knowledge, or having reasonable grounds to know, that it will induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal a copyright infringement (17 U.S.C. § 1202(b)).

Defendants moved to dismiss, asserting that the court should reject plaintiff’s DMCA cause of action for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted because copyright registration, which plaintiff admits it lacks, was a prerequisite for bringing suit under this provision of the DMCA.

The court denied the motion. It held that copyright registration was not a prerequisite to this sort of action.

Defendants had argued that the provisions of 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) required registration. That section provides that “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” Defendants argued that this requirement applied to DMCA actions and tried to justify their position by asserting that (1) a plain reading of Section 1202(b) of the DMCA establishes that a claim brought thereunder constitutes a civil action for infringement, (2) the provisions of Title 17 of the United States Code, including 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), apply to the DMCA despite its silence as to those provisions, and (3) precedent shows that the registration requirement applies to the DMCA. The court rejected these arguments.

First, a plain reading of the DMCA did not establish that it is subject to the registration requirement found in 17 U.S.C. § 411(a). Such requirement pertains to “civil action[s] for infringement of the copyright.” However, a DMCA action under Section 1202(b) is not an action for infringement, but rather for the improper removal or alteration of CMI. Second, the court held that Section 411(a) need not apply to the DMCA merely because other provisions of Title 17 do. Finally, the case law defendants cited, including the recent Supreme Court case of Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com, did not indicate that registration is required for DMCA actions.

Diamondback Industries, Inv. v. Repeat Precision, LLC, 2019 WL 5842756 (N.D.Tex., November 7, 2019)

See also:

Suit under DMCA for concealing copyright management information failed because plaintiff did not properly allege defendants’ intent

About 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.

Employee’s unauthorized conduct was not a DMCA prohibited circumvention

Plaintiff sued its former employee and alleged, among other things, that defendant violated the anticircumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act  (17 USC 1201). While defendant was still an employee, she used her username and password to access and download copyrighted material stored on plaintiff’s server after she had already accepted an employment offer from a competitor.

Defendant moved to dismiss the anticircumvention claim. The court granted the motion to dismiss.

The court’s holding centered on what the DMCA means by “circumvent a technological measure”. The statute requires that for there to be circumvention, one must “descramble a scrambled work . . . decrypt an encrypted work, or otherwise . . . avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure, without the authority of the copyright owner.”

In this case, the court followed the line of reasoning in prior cases, including Egilman v. Keller & Heckman LLP  to hold that defendant did not circumvent any measures because she validly accessed the system using her username and password.

The court found that even if the use that defendant made of that access was not something that plaintiff would have authorized her to do, i.e. copy the materials at issue, defendant’s alleged abuse of her logon privileges did not rise to the level of descrambling, decrypting, or otherwise avoiding, bypassing, removing, deactivating, or impairing anything.

R. Christopher Goodwin & Assoc., Inc. v. Search, Inc., 2019 WL 5576834 (E.D. Louisiana October 29, 2019)

About 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.

Software development breach of contract lawsuit moves forward

Plaintiff sued defendant software developer for breach of contract and other claims, asserting that defendant failed to develop and deliver a video editing application on time and within budget. Defendant moved to dismiss the case, arguing that plaintiff had failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court denied the motion to dismiss the breach of contract claim, allowing that claim to move forward.

The court found that plaintiff had successfully pled a breach of contract claim under Texas law. Defendant had argued that the parties agreed to benchmark the developed software’s performance in comparison to “recreational” software, but that plaintiff later demanded the software be benchmarked against professional grade software. Plaintiff responded that it had asked defendant to benchmark the program’s speed to iMovie, which it characterized as recreational and not professional.

The court looked past this benchmarking aspect and found that even in light of the apparent disagreement on the standard, the allegations in the complaint – that defendant had not provided a viable product under the agreement – were sufficient to support a breach of contract claim.

Polar Pro Filters, Inc. v Frogslayer LLC, 2019 WL 5400934 (S.D. Texas, October 22, 2019)

Court denies porn company’s request to unmask anonymous copyright infringers

Serial copyright plaintiff Strike 3 Holdings filed a number of copyright complaints against defendants – known only by their IP addresses – for copyright infringement. Since plaintiff needed to know the identities of the defendants to move forward, it asked the court for leave to seek expedited discovery. In a consolidated matter – addressing a number of complaints – the court denied the motion.

The main reason for denying the motion was that, in the court’s view, as pleaded, plaintiff’s complaints were futile – they did not meet the standard for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).

Further, even if plaintiff had pled a cognizable copyright infringement claim, the court would still have denied the requests for expedited discovery. Good cause for the expedited discovery did not exist because:

  • plaintiff based its complaints on unequivocal affirmative representations of alleged facts that it did not know to be true
  • plaintiff’s subpoenas were misleading and created too great of an opportunity for misidentification of the unknown defendants
  • the linchpin of plaintiff’s good cause argument, that expedited discovery was the only way to stop infringement of its works, was wrong – plaintiff could have sent takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act
  • plaintiff had other available means to stop infringement besides suing individual subscribers in thousands of John Doe complaints
  • the deterrent effect of plaintiff’s lawsuits was questionable
  • substantial prejudice may have inured to subscribers who were misidentified; and
  • plaintiff underestimated the substantial interest subscribers had in the constitutionally protected privacy of their subscription information.

On balance, therefore, the court found that the overall administration of justice and the prejudice to subscriber defendants outweighed plaintiff’s interest in expedited discovery.

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Does, 2019 WL 5446239 (D.N.J. October 24, 2019)

Cost of domain name was relevant in establishing secondary meaning of trademark

In a trademark dispute between two companies in the real estate space, the court was called upon – at the summary judgment stage – to determine if there was a triable issue as to whether plaintiff’s STOCKDALE mark was not merely descriptive but instead had acquired distinctiveness.

Defendants had argued that plaintiff’s case failed because plaintiff did not have a protectable mark. Plaintiff countered that its STOCKDALE mark, which it had used for 30 years and which the court found was primarily merely a surname, had acquired distinctiveness. Guided by the principles in the case of Viacom Int’l v. IJR Capital Investments, LLC, 891 F.3d 178 (5th Cir. 2018) (the Krusty Krab case), the court examined, concerning plaintiff’s mark:

  • length and manner of use of the mark or trade dress,
  • volume of sales,
  • amount and manner of advertising,
  • nature of use of the mark or trade dress in newspapers and magazines,
  • consumer-survey evidence,
  • direct consumer testimony, and
  • the defendant’s intent in copying the [mark].

It determined that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the mark was protectable as one that had acquired distinctiveness. Interestingly, the plaintiff had not kept track of its advertising expenditures, but did introduce evidence that it had paid more than $50,000 to acquire the domain name stockdale(.)com. The court found that information relevant to inquiry.

Stockdale Investment Group, Inc. v. Stockdale Capital Partners, LLC, No. 18-2949, 2019 WL 5191526 (S.D. Tex., October 15, 2019)

About 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.

Browsewrap enforceable: hyperlinked terms on defendant’s website gave reasonable notice

Plaintiff was bound by forum selection clause found in online terms and conditions. 

Plaintiff sued TripAdvisor and some related defendants (including Viator, a company that TripAdvisor acquired) for a number of torts arising from an ATV accident that plaintiff had while on a tour in Mexico that she had booked online through defendants’ website. Defendants moved to dismiss, or in the alternative, to transfer the matter to federal court in Massachusetts based on the forum selection clause found in the Terms and Conditions that plaintiff agreed to when she booked the tour. The court granted the motion to transfer. 

To purchase the tour, plaintiff was required to click on a “Book Now” icon, directly under which the following message was located: “[b]y clicking Book Now and making a reservation, I acknowledge that I have read and agree to be bound by Viator’s Terms and Conditions and Privacy Statement.” The phrase “Viator’s Terms and Conditions” appeared in blue underlined text, in the form of a hyperlink, which directed the consumer to the website’s Terms and Conditions.

Viator’s Terms and Conditions included a forum selection clause, which, in relevant part, provided:

[T]his agreement is governed by the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, USA. You hereby consent to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of courts in Boston, Massachusetts, USA and stipulate to the fairness and convenience of proceedings in such courts for all disputes arising out of or relating to the use of this Website. You agree that all claims you may have against Viator, Inc. arising from or relating to this Website must be heard and resolved in a court of competent subject matter jurisdiction located in Boston, Massachusetts.

The court found that plaintiff had agreed to the forum selection clause, and that the clause was enforceable. In determining whether plaintiff was bound by the clause, the court was guided by “fundamental precepts of contract law.” More specifically, under New Jersey law, “[a] contract term is generally binding if the contract has been mutually agreed upon by the parties, is supported by valid consideration, and does not violate codified standards or offend public policy.” W. Caldwell v. Caldwell, 26 N.J. 9, 24-26 (1958).

Plaintiff had argued that the Terms and Conditions amounted to an invalid browsewrap agreement, because she neither received reasonable notice of their existence, nor provided an unambiguous manifestation of assent. Primarily relying upon Specht v. Netscape, plaintiff argued that she was not bound by the Terms and Conditions, because Viator’s website was designed so that a user can use its services without affirmatively assenting to the web page’s terms of use. According to plaintiff, she was ultimately permitted to purchase the ATV tour without ever being asked to check a box or click an “I Agree” button, or even acknowledge that the Terms existed. Without proper notice, plaintiff maintained that enforcing the forum selection was not appropriate. 

The court disagreed. It found that the hyperlinked terms on defendant’s website adhered to the requirements of reasonable notice. Regardless of whether plaintiff was required to scroll through the Check Out page, the hyperlinked Terms and Conditions were conspicuously placed directly underneath the “Book Now” icon. Based on its location, therefore, the court found that the hyperlink was not hidden in an area of the screen that plaintiff was unlikely to notice, but, instead, was clearly displayed in a section of the webpage that she needed to review in order to effectuate her purchase of the ATV tour. Stated differently, the hyperlink was placed within the immediate proximity of an icon that plaintiff was required to click, for the purpose of confirming her purchase on defendant’s website. 

Mucciariello v. Viator, Inc., No. 18-14444, 2019 WL 4727896, D.N.J. (September 27, 2019)

About 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.

Parked domain names were in “use in commerce” for purposes of Section 43(a) claim

Plaintiff, the owner of a college student housing facility, filed suit for unfair competition under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act against a number of entities and individuals that operated a competing student housing facility. Defendants registered eight domain names that incorporated plaintiff’s trademarks. At first defendants used some of the domain names to redirect traffic to the website for defendants’ competing student housing facility. But after plaintiff demanded defendants cease and desist, defendants simply parked the domain names with GoDaddy and permitted pay-per-click ads to appear on the pages. 

The case went to trial and the court found in plaintiff’s favor on the unfair competition claim. The court determined that the domain names were confusingly similar to plaintiff’s marks that had acquired secondary meaning. And the use of the domain names in the manner defendants had set them up constituted use in commerce. Each of the web pages displayed the domain name associated with it – and each such domain contained plaintiff’s mark. And each of the pages showed pay-per-click ads comprised of links to various vendors’ goods and services. This use met the Lanham Act’s definition of “use in commerce”. 

ZP No. 314, LLC v. ILM Capital, LLC, No. 16-521, 2019 WL 4924029 (S.D. Alabama, September 30, 2019)

About 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.