Viacom sues YouTube

Update #2, a rundown of the complaint:

Viacom’s complaint alleges six causes of action against YouTube and Google. The first three causes of action seek to hold YouTube and Google directly liable for copyright infringement, while the remaining three seek to hold the defendants liable on secondary liability theories. The causes of action are: (1) direct copyright infringement related to the unauthorized public performance of the uploaded videos, (2) direct copyright infringement related to the unauthorized public display of the videos, (3) direct copyright infringement related to the unauthorized reproduction of the uploaded videos by the YouTube service, (4) inducement of copyright infringement, (5) contributory infringement, and (6) vicarious infringement.

It will be interesting to see how, in pursuing the direct liability claims, Viacom overcomes the challenges presented by precedent such as Religious Tech. Ctr. v. Netcom, 907 F.Supp. 1361 (N.D. Cal. 1995). The Netcom case held that “[a]lthough copyright is a strict liability statute, there should still be some element of volition or causation which is lacking where a defendant’s system is merely used to create a copy by a third party.” Arguably, the manner in which videos are performed, displayed and created (i.e., transcoded after being uploaded) is automatic, without any active, volitional involvement by YouTube in each instance.

Count IV is particularly interesting, as the allegations parrot the language from MGM v. Grokster, 125 S.Ct. 2764, 2780 (2005). Grokster provides that “[o]ne who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.” Some commentators had speculated that YouTube might face some Grokster problems. See, e.g., Mark Cuban’s commentary here. Viacom has alleged that “[d]efendants operate the YouTube website service with the object of promoting its use to infringe Plaintiffs’ copyrights and, by their clear expression and other affirmative steps, Defendants are unlawfully fostering copyright infringement by YouTube users.”

Count V, for contributory infringement, has some interesting allegations supporting it. One of the elements required to prove contributory infringement is knowledge on the part of the defendant of the infringing activity. See, e.g., Gershwin Publishing Corp. v. Columbia Artists Management, Inc., 443 F.2d 1159, 1162 (2d Cir. 1971)(“[O]ne who, with knowledge of the infringing activity, induces, causes or materially contributes to the infringing conduct of another, may be held liable as a ‘contributory’ infringer.”). To get around the potential problem that it might be implausible for YouTube to gain knowledge of each infringement, Viacom borrows from the language used to describe the real property doctrine of adverse possession, in calling the infringement occurring on YouTube “open and notorious.” So the argument apparently is, YouTube would have no way of not knowing that infringement is occurring.

To support its allegations of vicarious infringement in Count VI, Viacom addresses the purported “right and ability” of YouTube to supervise the infringing conduct, and to prevent further infringement. Perhaps realizing that it would be impossible to police each of the literally millions of videos uploaded to the site, Viacom makes much of the fact that YouTube has apparently been unwilling to use filtering technology in connection with works owned by any entities other than with whom YouTube has entered into licensing arrangements. In the complaint, this selectiveness of YouTube is characterized as “withhold[ing]” of protections.

Update #1: Here is a copy of the complaint.

According to Techdirt and this press release, Viacom filed a huge copyright infringement suit this morning against Google and YouTube in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

More details are sure to emerge when a copy of the complaint becomes available, but the press release states that Viacom is seeking a billion dollars in damages plus injunctive relief.

As you’ll recall, early last month, Viacom sent DMCA takedown notices to Google demanding the removal of over 100,000 video clips to which Viacom owns the copyright.

Web pages used as exhibits to court filing protected by fair use

The parties in the matter of Shell v. Devries, a case from the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, are no strangers to litigation with one another. In a previous civil rights lawsuit filed by plaintiff Shell, the defendants filed a motion for attorney’s fees, attaching thereto a copy of ten pages of Shell’s copyrighted website, profane-justice.org.

Shell filed a second lawsuit against the same defendants, this time claiming that the use of the pages as an exhibit to the filing in the previous case was an infringement of copyright. The defendants moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), asserting a fair use defense. The court granted the motion.


Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes under a (CC) license.

The court disagreed with the defendants’ contention that use of copyrighted works in legal proceedings is “inherently” a fair use. Citing to the case of Images Audio Visual Productions v. Perini Bldg. Co., 91 F.Supp.2d 1075 (E.D.Mich.2000), it observed that where judicial proceedings are one of the intended markets of the copyrighted work, the copyright holder is entitled to exercise control over the use of his works within this market; the fair use doctrine does not require the wholesale abandonment of copyright protection at the courthouse door.

But at least two other cases have held that use of copyrighted works in court proceedings is protected by fair use. In Religious Technology Center v. Wollersheim, 971 F.2d 364, 367 (9th Cir. 1992) the court found fair use where the defendants copied and distributed religious scriptures from former members of the Scientology Church and gave them to expert witnesses for the purpose of preparing testimony in the case. In Jartech v. Clancy, 666 F.2d 403, 406-07 (9th Cir.1982), abbreviated copies of adult movies for use as evidence in a nuisance abatement proceeding were considered fair use.

In this case, the court examined the four factors of 17 U.S.C. 107 to conclude that the use made by the defendants in attaching the web pages to the motion was a non-infringing fair use.

First, there were no allegations in the complaint that the defendants used the material for the “intrinsic purpose for which it was prepared,” namely, to “generate income” or provide “creative analysis and commentary about events occurring related to the [previous] lawsuit.”

The second factor also weighed in favor of fair use, as the materials were primarily a chronology of events, and thus were more factual in nature than creative.

As for the third factor, the court observed that the use of the work was limited. Accordingly, the factor carried “very little weight.” In any event, citing to Sega Enterprises Ltd. v. Accolade, Inc., 977 F.2d 1510, 1526 (9th Cir. 1992), the court hled that “the fact that an entire work was copied does not . . . preclude a finding of fair use.” (The case of Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp., 336 F.3d 811 (9th Cir. 2003) would also have been a good case to cite for this point.)

Finally, for the important fourth factor — the effect on the market of the copyrighted work — the court found that the complaint did not allege that the marketability of the work was impaired. Moreover, the court observed that “[i]ndeed, it is impossible to imagine how the defendants’ use of the materials as an exhibit to a motion for attorneys’ fees could in any way impact the marketability of the materials.”

Shell v. Devries, (Slip Op.) No. 06-318, 2007 WL 324592 (D.Colo. Jan. 31, 2007)

Ninth circuit rejects efforts to liberate “orphan works”

“Orphan works” are works that are protected by copyright, but for which it is difficult, if not impossible, to locate the copyright owner. These works usually have little or no commercial value, but some argue that the uncertainty surrounding their ownership needlessly discourages subsequent creators and users from incorporating them into new creative efforts.

Works created before the effective date of the Copyright Act of 1976 (i.e., under the 1909 Act) were subject to copyright protection for 28 years. That duration could be extended if the copyright owner renewed the copyright for another 28 years. Accordingly, the old system has been characterized as an “opt-in” system, in that to extend the duration of copyright ownership, the owner had to take certain affirmative steps.

The Copyright Renewal Act of 1992, Pub. L. No. 102-307, 106 Stat. 264, eliminated the renewal requirements for works created between 1964 and 1977. The Sunny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Pub. L. No. 105-298, 112 Stat. 2827 (1998), extended the term of copyright ownership to the life of the author plus 70 years (in the case of works authored by individuals). The present framework has been described as an “opt-out” system, in that copyright protection attaches automatically, unless a person takes some affirmative act to convey the work to the public domain.

The opt-out system and longer terms of copyright mean a larger number of orphan works. Some say that orphan works “probably comprise the majority of the record of 20th century culture.”

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, along with a number of other plaintiffs, sought to fix the present situation of orphan works by challenging the constitutionality of the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 and the Sunny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. They filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court in California, emphasizing the increased possibilities for archiving and disseminating content over the Internet. When the court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs sought review. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the action.

[Aside: Check out this interesting interview that Dr. Moira Gunn did with Brewster Kahle last year.]

The plaintiffs raised two arguments. First, they argued that the change from an “opt-out” system to an “opt-in” system “altered the traditional contour of copyright” and therefore, under the holding of Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003), should be subject to First Amendment review. The second argument was that the current copyright term — providing what the plaintiffs characterized as a term that is “effectively perpetual” — violated the Constitution’s “limited Times” prescription, found at Article I, Sec. 8, Clause 8.

The court rejected each of these arguments. Relying on the Eldred case, the court held that the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 and the Sunny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act both served to “lengthen the term for [certain works], but in doing so they simply placed existing copyrights in parity with those of future works.” In Eldred, the act of creating “parity” survived constitutional scrutiny. And so it did in this case too.

As for the second argument, namely, that the current term of copyright — in many instances well over a century — was too long, the court relied again on Eldred. Noting that the decision of Congress to extend the term of copyright was subject to rationality review, the court looked to the “rationally credited projections that longer terms would encourage copyright holders to invest in the restoration and public distribution of their works.” In other words, Congress had undertaken an appropriate balancing test between encouraging creativity and bringing works into the public domain.

Kahle v. Gonzalez, (Slip Op.), —F.3d—-, No. 04-17434 (9th Cir., Jan. 22, 2007).

Enthusiast website owner enjoined from streaming webcasts of racing events

The RIAA and the MPAA aren’t the only ones out there suing their fans for copyright infringement. Live Nation Motor Sports, Inc. (formerly known as SFX Motor Sports) has convinced a federal judge in Texas to enjoin fan-site owner Robert Davis from streaming live webcasts of racing events through his site supercrosslive.com.

It appears that Davis was simply running the live ClearChannel webcast of Supercross racing events through his own website. According to papers filed by the plaintiff, Davis was “transferring” the webcasts to his own website and thereby displaying or performing them in real time. It doesn’t look like there was any copying of the sound recording — instead, Davis was broadcasting or performing the “same audio web cast.”

The court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the plaintiff would likely succeed on its claim that defendant’s actions constituted copyright infringement.

In concluding that the “transfer” of the audio webcast to the supercross.com website was likely an infringement, the court cited to National Football League v. PrimeTime 24 Joint Venture, 211 F.3d 10 (2d Cir.2000) in which the Second Circuit upheld a permanent injunction against a defendant accused of providing unauthorized satellite transmissions of NFL games to viewers in Canada. In that case, the court held that the process of uplinking the NFL’s original signal to a satellite was an unauthorized public performance of the broadcast.

Perhaps the court would have come to a different conclusion on the question of whether the defendant’s “transfer” of the audio webcast was a public performance had it compared it instead to in-line linking. This concept was discussed earlier this year in Perfect 10 v. Google, Inc., 416 F.Supp.2d 828 (C.D. Cal. 2006). In-line linking is the process where a web developer shows an image on his or her website by providing a path in the <img> tag to a file residing on another server.

In the Perfect 10 v. Google case, the court concluded that Google did not itself display or distribute images to which it in-line linked. [More] It applied the “server test” (as opposed to an “incorporation test”) to conclude that “the website on which content is stored and by which it is served directly to a user, not the website that in-line links to it, is the website that ‘displays’ the content.” It found that in aggregating images from other sites, the Google image search engine was not in the process of storing or serving content. “Rather, [users’] computers have engaged in a direct connection with third-party websites, which are themselves responsible for transferring content.”

Live Nation Motor Sports, Inc. v. Davis, (Slip Op.) 2006 WL 3616983 (N.D.Tex., December 11, 2006).

Big time blogger faces big time copyright suit

Case promises fair use showdown in blogging context.

[Thanks to Venkat for alerting me to this case.]

The widely-read Los Angeles-based gossip blogger Perez Hilton, whose blog features all sorts of tabloid-like commentary on Hollywood culture, has been sued by X17, a photo agency known for collecting images of celebrities in sometimes not-so-flattering situations. X17 is claiming copyright infringement, and, according to this article from the Boston Herald, the claimed damages are quite substantial (about $7.5 million).

X17 says that Hilton has used its images of celebrities without permission, but Hilton is claiming fair use. And this presents and interesting question. The plaintiff is characterized as a paparazzi agency by this L.A. Times article. It looks like Hilton simply appropriates the images of others, and, using photo editing software, scrawls handwritten messages upon the images. He then posts them with commentary and reports of the celebrities’ goings on.

So will Hilton’s fair use argument get him off the hook? The Copyright Act provides that a defendant’s use of a work is fair if, among other things, the use was made “for purposes such as criticism, comment, [and] news reporting.” Hilton’s lawyer says that the use in this case is fair commentary and a transformation of the original works.

With the dispute framed this way, we’re presented with the question of what are the purpose and character of original paparazzi photos? Are they made for purposes of poking fun and fostering gossip or are they made for some other reason? That “some other reason” seems like it could be elusive. In any event, we’re likely to see X17 make some distinction between serious paparazzi efforts and the efforts of Hilton to make his commentary.

Interesting Japanese file-sharing case

[Hat tip to Colette for alerting me to this case.]

From Japan, there are reports of a recent decision in a criminal prosecution against the creator of the file-sharing software Winny. From this article we learn that Isamu Kaneko has been ordered to pay 1.5 million yen (almost $13,000 USD) as a fine for creating the software, even though “the court acknowledged that [Kaneko] did not actively encourage copyright infringements over the Internet.”

A holding like this is likely to elicit comparisons between Japan’s framework for secondarily liability and that of the United States, where the law of the land under the Grokster holding calls for liability when one distributes “a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement.”

Court sides with record companies in dueling motions to dismiss

Elektra Entertainment Group, Inc. v. Perez is one of the thousands of copyright infringement lawsuits that the record companies have filed against accused individual P2P file-sharers. The suit is pending in a federal court in Oregon.

Defendant Dave Perez moved pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss the copyright infringement claim filed agasint him, contending that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. He argued that the complaint didn’t specify the sound recordings that were at issue, and that the plaintiffs hadn’t specified what activities constituted the illegal distribution of the copyrighted files.

The court rejected those arguments, however, noting that exhibits to the complaint listed the songs that were alleged to be infringed, and demonstrated that those songs were being made available through Kazaa.

Having denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the court next turned to a motion filed by the record companies under Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(a)(2) to voluntarily dismiss the infringement claim against Mr. Perez. It turns out that discovery in the case had revealed to the plaintiffs that maybe it wasn’t Dave Perez trading the files, but other members of his household.

Interestingly, Mr. Perez objected to the voluntary dismissal of the claim against him. That seems odd, doesn’t it, given that he had argued in his own motion that the claim should be dismissed? But a closer look reveals the likely motivation for Mr. Perez’s objection: he didn’t want his own counterclaim for attorney’s fees to get thrown out as well.

The court sided with the record companies, holding that Mr. Perez would not suffer any prejudice by having the suit dismissed. The fact that he had spent a significant amount of money defending the suit and should have been dismissed a year ago were insufficient arguments. The case against the remaining family members will apparently proceed.

Elektra Entertainment Group, Inc. v. Perez, No. 05-931, 2006 WL 3063493 (D.Or., October 25, 2006).

Evidence-destroying defendant severely sanctioned in P2P file-sharing case

In the case of Arista Records v. Tschirhart, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas has shown little mercy on a defendant accused by record companies of illegal file-sharing.

Knowing that a court order was in place requiring her to turn over her hard drive to be copied, the defendant allegedly used “wiping” software in an attempt to destroy all evidence of her illegal P2P file sharing. In response, the plaintiff record companies moved, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b), for the most severe form of sanctions against the defendant – entry of default against her. The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and provided them with 30 days to submit a proposed order spelling out their damages.

Given that the record companies’ expert opined that the defendant had downloaded over 200 sound recordings during 2005, those requested damages will probably be substantial. Statutory damages under the Copyright Act can go as high as $150,000 per work infringed, in the most egregious cases.

In reaching its decision to enter default against the defendant, the court exercised its inherent power to do so, making a note of its obligation to act with “restraint and discretion.” It found that the defendant had acted in bad faith. That bad faith was exacerbated – and the default was further warranted – by the fact that the defendant herself was responsible for the destruction of evidence, that the deletion of the files destroyed the strongest evidence relevant to the plaintiff’s infringement claims, and that less drastic sanctions would not be appropriate.

Not only was the sanction intended to dissuade the plaintiff from destroying evidence in the future, it was intended to make an example out of her. Merely awarding the plaintiffs their attorney’s fees or giving the jury an adverse inference instruction at trial would not have been enough to remedy the situation. Given the defendant’s “blatant contempt” for the court and a “fundamental disregard for the judicial process,” only default would be an adequate punishment and deterrent to others considering similar conduct.

[Hat tip to Techdirt for posting on this case.]

Arista Records, LLC, v. Tschirhart, No. 05-372 (W.D. Tex., August 23, 2006).

Selling fake software on Amazon.com can get you five years in prison

[Thanks to Tech Law Advisor for alerting me to this case.]

Defendant Banks devised a scheme where he would make copies of various Microsoft products and sell them through Amazon.com to buyers who purchased them cash-on-delivery. After getting orders for at least $300,000 worth of software in this way, the plan began to collapse. Dissatisfied customers turned Banks into the FBI, and a federal grand jury indicted him on several counts, including mail fraud, possessing false securities, and criminal copyright infringement. A jury convicted him, and he got five years in prison.

Banks appealed his conviction and sentence, but the Third Circuit affirmed. On the criminal copyright infringement claim, Banks argued that the government had not introduced sufficient evidence to show that the Microsoft software was protected by copyright.

The criminal provisions of the Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. §506 state that

Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under [18 U.S.C. §2319], if the infringement was committed– (A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain; (B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000…. (Emphasis added.)

The court held that evidence introduced at trial through an “antipiracy specialist associated with the Microsoft company” was sufficient to show Microsoft’s ownership of the copyrights in the works. In the specialist’s unrebutted testimony, she stated her “belief” that Microsoft copyrights covered the works at issue. Further, the specialist had testified that Microsoft sent Banks the same type of cease and desist letter as it did to others who were suspected of violating Microsoft’s copyrights.

One is left to wonder why the government did not introduce any of Microsoft’s copyright registration certificates in the course of proving the element of copyright ownership. One would think that that would be the best practice for making such proof. In any event, the question before the court was whether the jury correctly concluded that Microsoft owned the copyrights in the works. The antipiracy specialist’s testimony — even if a bit weak on this point — apparently was enough.

United States v. Vampire Nation, (Slip Op.) — F.3d —, 2006 WL 1679385 (3d Cir., June 20, 2006).

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