No liability for cable company that retained customer information in violation of law

Court essentially holds “no harm, no foul” in case involving violation of federal privacy statute. The case fails to provide an incentive for “privacy by design”.

Can a company that is obligated by law to destroy information about its former customers be held liable under that law if, after the contract with the customer ends, the company does not destroy the information as required? A recent decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (which is located in St. Louis) gives some insight into that issue. The case is called Braitberg v. Charter Communications, Inc., — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4698283 (8th Cir., Sep. 8, 2016).


Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his former cable company after he learned that the company held on to his personally identifiable information, including his social security number, years after he had terminated his cable service. The cable company was obligated under the federal Cable Communications Policy Act to “destroy personally identifiable information if the information is no longer necessary for the purpose for which it was collected.”

The lower court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis that plaintiff had not properly demonstrated that he had standing to bring the lawsuit. Plaintiff appealed to the Eighth Circuit. On review, the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit.

The appellate court’s decision was informed by the recent Supreme Court decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540 (S.Ct. 2016), which addressed, among other things, the question of whether a plaintiff asserting violation of a privacy statute has standing to sue.

As a general matter, Article III of the Constitution limits the jurisdiction of the federal courts to actual “cases or controversies”. A party invoking federal jurisdiction must show, among other things, that the alleged injury is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical”.

In this case, the Court of Appeals found that plaintiff had not alleged an injury in fact as required under Article III and the Spokeo decision. His complaint asserted merely “a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm.”

The court’s opinion goes on to provide some examples of when the violation of a privacy statute would give rise to standing. It does this by noting certain things that plaintiff did not allege. He did not, for example allege that defendant had disclosed information to a third party, that any other party accessed the data, or that defendant used the information in any way after the termination of the agreement. Simply stated, he identified no material risk of harm from the retention. This speculative or hypothetical risk was insufficient for him to bring the lawsuit.

One unfortunate side effect of this decision is that it does little to encourage the implementation of “privacy by design” in the development of online platforms. As we have discussed before, various interests, including the federal government, have encouraged companies to develop systems in a way that only keeps data around for as long as it is needed. The federal courts’ unwillingness to recognize liability in situations where data is indeed kept around longer than necessary, even in violation of the law, does not provide an incentive for the utilization of privacy by design practices.

Braitberg v. Charter Communications, Inc., — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4698283 (8th Cir., Sep. 8, 2016)

Photo courtesy Flickr user Justin Hall under this Creative Commons license.

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], or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Cruz campaign still facing copyright and breach of contract liability over songs used in political ads

Court denies motion to dismiss copyright and breach of contract claims over songs used in YouTube and TV political ads.

Months after Ted Cruz ended his presidential bid, his campaign, and the advertising company hired to create ads for the campaign, still face liability over two songs used in YouTube and television ads. A federal court in Washington state has denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss copyright infringement and breach of contract claims brought against them.

An employee of the Cruz campaign’s advertising company allegedly downloaded two songs from Audiosocket, and then used those songs in two separate campaign ads. Audiosocket and the copyright holders sued for infringement and breach of the licensing agreements under which the songs were provided.

The court rejected the defendants’ arguments. It held that the plaintiffs had adequately pled the existence of their copyright registrations, and that the claims for breach of the licensing agreement were not preempted by the Copyright Act. Because the licensing agreement expressly prohibited the songs to be used for political purposes, the breach of contract claims were not “equivalent” to a copyright infringement claim, and therefore not subject to preemption under 17 USC 301.

The case is a reminder of the risks that companies and organizations face when hiring outside vendors to procure and create content. The hiring party should seek, at minimum, to ensure that the vendor has obtained the appropriate rights in the content it will integrate into the deliverables provided under the arrangement. And the vendor should utilize appropriate internal protocols and form documents to help ensure that the content it provides to its customer does not infringe. That kind of diligence will help avoid unpleasant situations between vendor and customer that arise when third parties claim against both of them that intellectual property rights have been infringed.

Leopona, Inc. v. Cruz For President, 2016 WL 3670596 (W.D. Washington, July 11, 2016)

Six things business owners should know about trademarks

#1 – Trademark law protects your brand.


Trademarks are intellectual property. The different categories of intellectual property can be confusing, and as you are identifying and evaluating the different legal issues your business faces, you should seek to understand the role that each category plays. That way you can determine where you should focus your resources to cover the company’s greatest needs. Every business has trademark needs. Trademark law gives exclusive rights to providers of goods and services to use the company’s distinctive marks in connection with the company’s goods and services. A trademark (or a service mark, collectively “marks”) identify the source of goods and services. So while the company is the one that may claim rights in the trademark, it is useful to remember that the ultimate reason for trademark protection is to keep members of the consuming public from being confused about where the goods or services come from.

#2 – Registration is not necessary, but it is a good idea.


At least in the U.S., trademark rights arise from using the mark in commerce. This means a couple of different things. For one, the law will provide your company with exclusive rights to use a certain mark in connection with certain goods or services by virtue of your having used the mark in commerce in connection with those goods or services. But there are limits to this protection — you can only claim that exclusivity in the geographic area in which you’ve actually used the mark. Getting a registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office helps you in this area. Once the USPTO awards your company a registration certificate for the mark, you are the presumed owner of the exclusive rights to that mark in connection with those goods and services anywhere in the United States, regardless of where you have actually done business. A registration carries with it other benefits as well — you can use the “circle R” designation with the mark, and your registration serves to help give notice to (i.e., warn) other companies who might consider adopting the same or similar mark.

#3 – Descriptive words and phrases generally cannot be trademarks.


Trademark law does not allow a company to claim exclusive rights on words or phrases that merely describe the product or some characteristic of it. This is a common issue that companies face when deciding on a mark for adoption and registration. Descriptive terms are good in that they convey to the consuming public what the product is all about. But descriptive terms are to be avoided in that they are not distinctive. Unless a mark is distinctive, the trademark laws do not recognize it as a trademark or service mark. A mark can be “inherently distinctive” in a number of ways. It may be a made up word (e.g., Kodak), “arbitrary” in that the original meaning of the word does not correspond with the products (e.g., Apple for computers), or “suggestive” – sort of describing the product but requiring a step in imagination (e.g., Beautyrest for mattresses). Or the mark can be a design. Marks can become distinctive over time (usually after 5 years of use). This is known as “acquired distinctiveness.”

#4 – Smart business owners do trademark clearance.


Trademark clearance is the process that a company goes through before actually using or seeking to register a mark. The goal is to become reasonably sure that the use of the proposed mark will not put you at high risk of infringing someone else’s mark. Clearance also helps prevent wasting resources on a trademark application that will get rejected by the USPTO because there is already a similar mark that someone else has applied for or registered. Clearance usually has a couple steps. Many companies have their trademark counsel perform “knockout searches” to identify any obvious risks of conflict. This can be as simple as doing a web search and a search of the USPTO database for marks that look and sound the same and are for similar goods or services. Before going all out on adopting and seeking to register a mark, however, it is a good idea to have trademark counsel perform a comprehensive search and advise on the results. A number of parties offer comprehensive search services. The key question in trademark clearance is likelihood of confusion. A mark owner needs to be reasonably sure that using the proposed mark in commerce will not cause confusion among the confusing public as to the source of the goods or services offered under the mark.

#5 – Trademark fair use is a thing.


In some circumstances a company can use another company’s trademark without much risk of infringement. Generally this falls under the heading of “fair use.” Classic fair use is when one company uses another’s mark in just a descriptive sense. For example, a laundromat may say in its advertising that it is next door to the Burger King. In that case, the use of Burger King is not an infringement. Nominative fair use is when a company uses another mark to describe some characteristic of that mark. A commercial for Toyota, for example, may use the Honda trademark for purposes of comparing the two product lines.

#6 – Use it or lose it. Protect it or lose it.


Trademark rights come from the company’s use of the mark, and there is always a risk that those rights might be abandoned. If a company stops using a mark, a court may find that it has abandoned its rights, and another company would be free to adopt and use the mark. The USPTO requires that documents be filed every few years to ensure that marks that are listed as registered remain in use. If a company does not take appropriate steps to ensure its mark is distinctive in the marketplace, it can similarly be found to have abandoned its rights. So mark owners should do some “policing” to see that there no one else uses a confusingly similar mark on similar products. If the company discovers such use, it must be diligent in seeking to get the other company to stop, through sending a cease and desist letter or through litigation when appropriate.

Food&Beverage photo courtesy schatz under this Creative Commons license.

Coffee sign photo courtesy Aaron Gustafson under this Creative Commons license.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with trademarks, copyright, technology, the internet and new media.

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