Court allows Microsoft to unmask unknown Comcast users accused of infringement

A federal court in Washington state has given the green light for Microsoft to subpoena records from Comcast to discover the identity of the person or persons associated with an IP address used to activate thousands of unauthorized copies of Microsoft software.

Statue_of_Anonymus_(Budapest,_2013)

Generally, in federal court litigation, a party cannot serve discovery requests or subpoenas until after the plaintiff and defendant have conferred (in a Rule 26(f) conference). But when the plaintiff does not know the identity of the defendant, there is a bootstrapping problem – discovery needs to be taken to find out the defendant with whom to conduct the conference. In situations like this, the plaintiff seeking to unmask an unknown defendant will file its complaint against one or more “John Does,” then ask the court for leave to serve discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference.

That is what happened in this case. It is a common tactic used by parties legitimately seeking to enforce intellectual property, as well as parties that may be considered copyright trolls. See, e.g., this early bittorrent case from 2011.

Microsoft filed its complaint and also filed a motion for leave to take discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference. Finding that good cause existed for the early discovery, the court granted the motion.

It held that

(1) Microsoft had associated the John Doe Defendants with specific acts of activating unauthorized software using product keys that were known to have been stolen from Microsoft, and had been used more times than were authorized for the particular software,

(2) Microsoft had adequately described the steps it took in an effort to locate and identify the John Doe defendants, specifically by utilizing its “cyberforensics” technology to analyze product key activation data, identifying patterns and characteristics which indicate software piracy,

(3) Microsoft had pleaded the essential elements to state a claim for copyright and trademark infringement, and

(4) the information proposed to be sought through a subpoena appeared likely to lead to identifying information that would allow Microsoft to serve the defendants with the lawsuit.

Microsoft Corp. v. John Does 1-10, 2017 WL 4958047 (W.D. Wash., November 1, 2017)

Image courtesy Dmitrij Rodionov under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Licensed granted hereby under same terms.

Website liable for statutory damages and attorney’s fees for copyright infringement

Plaintiff photojournalism company sued defendant retail website operator for copyright infringement arising from the publication on the site of two celebrity photographs. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on its copyright infringement claim. The court granted the motion.

Infringement Claim

Defendant argued that the copyright registration – which was a compilation of photographs taken over a couple of months – did not cover the photographs in question, because the registration made no specific mention of the photos. But the court rejected this argument, finding that the registration certificate for the compilation was valid because (a) all the photographs were by the same photographer, (b) all the photographs were published in the same calendar year, and (c) all the photographs had the same copyright claimant. Defendant could not point to any specific evidence in the record to cast doubt on the validity of the registration.

The parties did not dispute that defendant’s employees copied and reposted the photographs. Accordingly, the court found that plaintiff had established the elements required for a copyright infringement claim.

But defendant argued that it had a license to reuse the photographs, based on the terms of the E! website from which it obtained the photos. The court easily rejected this argument, noting that the defendant had not provided a copy of that purported license agreement, nor come up with any other evidence to support the claim.

Statutory Damages and Attorney’s Fees

The court awarded $750 in statutory damages – the minimum amount that the Copyright Act authorizes. The court based this in part on looking at the actual licensing fees charged for the photographs. Plaintiffs had charged E! a license fee of $75 for use of the photos. Even trebling this amount would not bring the damage calculation within the statutory minimum. So the court raised it to the lowest threshold permitted under the act.

As for attorney’s fees, the court found it appropriate to award fees to promote the stated purposes of the Copyright Act. Specifically, shifting fees here, in the court’s view, served to encourage and reward innovators for their contributions in the march toward progress rather than burdening them with the costs of defending their protected works.

Fameflynet, Inc. v. The Shoshanna Collection, — F.Supp.3d —, 2017 WL 4402568 (S.D.N.Y. October 2, 2017)

Online platform’s EULA barred software developer from claiming copyright ownership

eulaDeveloper entered into an agreement with the TD Ameritrade platform that gave him access to the platform’s APIs so that he could develop his own analytical tools. He claimed that without his authorization, the platform incorporated his software routines into its own technology. Developer sued for copyright infringement.

The platform moved to dismiss the claim and the court granted the motion.

Developer had presented to the court a registration certificate as evidence that he owned the copyright in the software he created. Such a registration certificate serves as prima facie evidence of copyright ownership, and establishes a rebuttable presumption of such ownership.

In its argument to dismiss developer’s claims, the platform pointed to its agreement with developer that stated, among other things, that use of the services “[would] not confer any title, ownership interest, or any intellectual property rights to me.” It also expressly prohibited the developer from creating derivative works from the services. The platform looked to these provisions in the agreement to rebut the presumption that the developer owned the copyright in the tools. The court agreed.

Developer argued that the platform had actually encouraged – and thereby authorized – the development of tools such as the ones he had created. But the court observed that while such a claim is “possible,” the developer had failed to allege any facts to demonstrate that the claim is “plausible.” So in sum, the court credited the terms of the agreement, and took those terms to preclude the developer from owning the copyright in the software he had developed.  It should be noted that the court left open the option for plaintiff to re-plead. But that does little to mitigate the extent to which the court’s reasoning here as to how the agreement could limit a claim of copyright is questionable.

TD Ameritrade v. Matthews, 2017 WL 4812035 (D. Alaska, October 25, 2017)

[Post updated 27 Oct 2017 at 8:08 CST to address option to re-plead.]

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.

YouTubers get fair use win in copyright suit brought over reaction video

Plaintiff makes videos and posts them to YouTube. Defendants took snippets of one of plaintiff’s videos, interspersed those snippets with their own commentary about the content of those snippets, and posted that to their YouTube channel. Plaintiff sued for copyright infringement. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing they were entitled to the affirmative defense of fair use.

The court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. It found that “[a]ny review of the defendants’ video leaves no doubt that it constitutes critical commentary of the [plaintiff’s] video.” It also found there is “no doubt that the [defendants’] video is decidedly not a market substitute for the plaintiff’s video.” Leaning on these elements – the first and fourth elements of the Copyright Act’s four-factor analysis – the court found in favor of defendants on their fair use defense.

Hosseinzadeh v. Klein, No. 16-CV-3081 (S.D.N.Y., August 23, 2017)

More coverage at TechCrunch.

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.

Toilet paper bearing Trump tweets a copyright problem?

This report from Fox News discusses toilet paper available via Amazon printed with Donald Trump tweets. It raises the question of whether the president would be able to stop the sale of this product and seek damages for copyright infringement. Assuming the tweets are printed without his permission, could he make a claim?

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There are a number of issues to consider here.

The first is the long-kicked-around question of whether tweets are copyrightable. In other words, do they contain enough and the kind of content to rise to the level of originality that copyright law requires? One would be hard pressed to argue that a tweet not comprised just of facts is outside copyright’s protection. Though only 140 characters, there is plenty of room for originality. If a tweet is not copyrightable, then neither would The Red Wheelbarrow.

The second issue is whether the tweets may not be subject to copyright because they are a work of the federal goverment. Section 105 of the Copyright Act says that “[c]opyright protection . . . is not available for any work of the United States Government.” This splits out into a couple of other issues. Are the tweets from when their author was president? And even if they are, would tweets from a personal account be a “work of the United States Government”?

The article gives us an answer to the first question, which postpones the opportunity to answer the second one. The tweets are from before he became president. So there does not appear to be much standing in the way of the Donald fighting these on copyright grounds if he were to so choose.

But not so fast. What about fair use? Obviously the nature of the product is a commentary on the content printed upon it.

What a crappy situation. Maybe Amazon will just flush this product from its site before we get there.

Instagram DMCA case over removal of copyright notice moves forward

Linking to the source will not keep you out of copyright trouble.

Defendant clothing company copied and cropped one of plaintiff photographer’s images, making plaintiff’s watermarked copyright notice no longer visible. Defendant posted the cropped version to Instagram and included a link to plaintiff’s Instagram post that contained the original image.

Plaintiff sued for copyright infringement and for unauthorized removal and/or alteration of copyright management information (“CMI”) under 17 U.S.C. 1202(b) (a portion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

Defendant moved to dismiss the action. The court granted the motion as to copyright infringement, but denied the motion as to removal of CMI.

The court dismissed the copyright infringement claim because plaintiff only alleged that she had applied for registration of the copyright in the image but had not yet received the registration certificate. (We covered this issue in a previous post.)

But the court held that registration was not a requirement for the CMI claim under the DMCA. And the court also rejected defendant’s argument that the inclusion of a link to plaintiff’s work undermined any assertion on plaintiff’s part that defendant’s conduct was intentional. (The relevant section of the DMCA concerning CMI includes a requirement that the removal be done “intentionally”).

Gattoni v. Tibi, LLC, 2017 WL 2313882 (S.D.N.Y. May 25, 2017)

Image courtesy of Flickr user Igor Putina under this Creative Commons license. Image cropped.

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.

Eleventh Circuit requires copyright owner to obtain registration certificate before filing suit

Although an author owns the copyright in a work the moment he or she creates the work, a court will not hear a case over infringement of the work until the work is registered with the Copyright Office. Here is relevant language from the Copyright Act:

[N]o civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until . . . registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.

17 U.S.C. 411(a). Since the Copyright Office issues a certificate of registration when it registers the copyright in a work, one view is that the statute requires a copyright plaintiff to have that registration certificate in hand before filing suit.

But that is not how courts have always applied the statute. Other language in the Copyright Act says that:

the owner of copyright or of any exclusive right in the work may obtain registration of the copyright claim by delivering to the Copyright Office the deposit specified by this section, together with the application and fee specified by sections 409 and 708 [of the Copyright Act].

17 U.S.C. 408(a). Notice how 408(a) does not talk about receiving a registration certificate – it seems to indicate that registration occurs simply by the owner submitting the application, fee and deposit. Some courts have read this portion of the statute this way, and allowed a plaintiff to file suit for copyright infringement after submitting the materials to the Copyright Office but before the registration certificate is issued.

So there is a split among the federal circuits on this issue, namely, between the “registration approach” (requiring certificate in hand) and the “application approach” (requiring only that the application, fee and deposit have been made).

Recently, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on the issue. It sided with the registration approach – holding that the plain language of the Copyright Act requires it.

Plaintiff owned the copyright in online articles to which it granted a license to defendant website operator under a subscription agreement. The agreement required defendant to discontinue publication of the licensed content when the agreement terminated. But after termination, the articles remained online. So plaintiff sued for copyright infringement.

The lower court dismissed the action on defendant’s motion because plaintiff had not alleged receipt of the copyright registration certificate in the works at issue. It had only alleged that it had filed the applications to register the copyright claims in the works. Plaintiff sought review with the Eleventh Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

The court concluded that the Copyright Act defines registration as a process that requires action by both the copyright owner and the Copyright Office. It relied heavily on language from Section 410 of the Copyright Act that reads as follows:

When, after examination, the Register of Copyrights determines that, in accordance with the provisions of this title, the material deposited constitutes copyrightable subject matter and that the other legal and formal requirements of this title have been met, the Register shall register the claim and issue to the applicant a certificate of registration under the seal of the Copyright Office.

17 U.S.C. 410 (emphasis added). Bolstered by the dictionary definition of “after,” the court held “that registration occurs only after examination of an application necessarily means that registration occurs ‘[l]ater in time than’ or ‘subsequent to’ the filing of the application for registration.”

Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, —F.3d —, 2017 WL 2191243 (11th Cir. May 18, 2017)

See also: Is a copyright registration required before filing an infringement lawsuit?

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.

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.

Is a copyright registration required before filing an infringement lawsuit?

It depends on what court you are in. In the Western District of Wisconsin, you have to have the registration certificate in hand.

Plaintiff photographer sued defendant sports memorabilia dealers for infringement of the copyright in a photo of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Certain defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that since he had not obtained a copyright registration certificate before filing suit, plaintiff had not satisfied this required precondition for making a copyright infringement claim.

The court granted the motion, holding that under 17 USC 411(a)‘s plain meaning, it is not sufficient for a plaintiff to simply allege it has filed an application to register the infringed copyright before filing suit. Instead, the statute’s language requires that a registration “has been made”.

Copyright litigants should note that there currently exists a circuit split on this issue — whether an application or actual registration –- is sufficient to meet the precondition for bringing an infringement action. And even district courts within the same circuit have differed on the reading of Section 411(a) (this is the case in the Seventh Circuit). The issue even splits well known copyright commentators William Patry and (the late) Melville Nimmer. Patry reads the statute to require registration certificate in hand, while Nimmer would read it to require only that an application has been filed.

The safer route, absent guidance from an authoritative appellate court, a Supreme Court decision, or a clarifying amendment to the Copyright Act, a plaintiff should make sure it has a registration certificate in hand before filing suit. The Copyright Office, for a fee, will process applications on an expedited basis. That extra fee is certainly more affordable than having the litigation matter hung up and possibly dismissed.

Robbins v. Svehla, 2016 WL 6900719 (W.D. Wis. November 22, 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 faces copyright liability over use of allegedly infringing third party add-on

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The recent case of Live Face on Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC illustrates some important risks of which any purchaser of third-party technology services or deliverables should be aware. The defendant in this case faces potential copyright liability (and the expenses associated with defending such claims) arising from technology that a third party vendor provided for defendant to enhance defendants’ website.

Plaintiff’s software

Plaintiff developed software that allows website operators to display video of a personal “host” to welcome online visitors to the website. A website operator implements plaintiff’s software by embedding an HTML script tag in the code of its website. The added code links the website to a copy of plaintiff’s software stored on the same server as the customer’s website or on a different server. When a user points his or her browser to the web page, the embedded HTML script tag causes the distribution of plaintiff’s software, which in turn causes the personal host video to be displayed. The browser saves plaintiff’s software into cache or hard drive or both, and automatically loads the software into RAM.

Defendants’ alleged infringement

Defendants allegedly used an infringing version of plaintiff’s software to display a spokesperson video on its website. Specifically, defendants claim that they contracted with a third party vendor that processed video that defendants provided, then sent defendants HTML code which defendants implemented into their site. When a user visited defendants’ website, his or her browser would call on the allegedly infringing code, which was stored on the third party vendor’s server. This caused a copy of the allegedly infringing software to be stored on the visitor’s computer in cache, memory, or its hard drive.

The proceedings

Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court denied most of the motion to dismiss, leaving the majority of copyright-related claims remaining in the case. It granted the motion to dismiss on the question of contributory liability.

Direct copyright infringement

Defendants raised several arguments as to why they should not be liable for direct copyright infringement . Although the court rejected each of these arguments, it observed that defendants’ most promising argument was that any infringement was actually done by the third party vendor that provided the technology to defendants. In this part of its opinion, the court considered the holdings of Perfect 10 v. Amazon, 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007) and other cases that involved in-line linking. The court observed that the reasoning of these cases appeared to limit plaintiff’s ability to hold defendants liable for direct infringement of plaintiffs distribution right. Nonetheless, the record did not have enough information for the court to definitively make a determination at this early stage. Accordingly, the court decided to permit discovery on the relationship between the third-party technology vendor and he allegedly infringing software.

The court also rejected defendants’ other arguments against liability for direct infringement. It found unpersuasive defendants’ arguments that the software was never downloaded. On this point, the court found that the complaint had sufficiently alleged that the infringing software was automatically saved into the cache or hard drives and automatically loaded into computer memory or RAM of visitors to defendants’ website. The court also rejected defendants’ arguments that the DMCA Safe Harbors protected them from liability, that any copying was only de minimis, and that previous lawsuits against the third-party technology provider should relieve defendants from liability.

Contributory infringement

On the question of contributory liability, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss. To bring a claim for contributory infringement, a plaintiff must allege both that its copyrighted work was directly infringed and that the defendant, with knowledge of the infringing activity, induced, caused, or materially contributed to the infringing conduct of another. The court found that plaintiffs had alleged only a bare legal conclusion that defendants knew or had reason to know they were using an infringing version of the software. Without strong enough allegations on the knowledge element of contributory infringement, this claim failed.

Vicarious infringement

Vicarious liability for copyright infringement may be imposed where a defendant 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. The court denied the motion to dismiss on this point, as plaintiff plausibly alleged that defendants controlled the allegedly unlawful distribution of copies of plaintiff’s software to its website visitors. The court drew inferences in plaintiff’s favor, noting the allegation that defendants did modify their website to include code linking to the allegedly infringing software. Plaintiffs also successfully alleged that defendants profited from the use of the infringing software in that having the video host captured, held and prolonged the attention of the average online user, and did in fact generate revenues and profits for defendants. On this point, the court look to Arista Records v. MP3Board, 2002 WL 1997918 (S.D.N.Y. August 28,2002), which stands for the proposition that “infringement which increases a defendant’s user base or otherwise acts as a draw for customers constitutes a direct financial interest.”

Implications

In the course of negotiating technology development and service agreements, a customer should seek to get assurances from its vendor that any technology being provided will not infringe third party intellectual property rights. It is critically important to, were possible, have the vendor warrant and represent that the deliverables are non-infringing. It is equally important, still from the customer’s perspective, to have the vendor obligate itself to indemnify the customer in the event there are third party claims of intellectual property infringement. Although from this opinion we do not see all the facts, it appears this could be a situation where the defendant/customer is being taken to task and having to incur needless expense for the use of infringing software provided by its vendor. If that is the case, it is an unfortunate situation, one which a prudent customer of technology services would be well advised to seek to avoid.

Live Face on Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC, 2016 WL 4766344 (S.D.N.Y., September 13, 2016)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user J E Theriot  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] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

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