Category: Copyright (page 2 of 18)

Web design feature killed express license argument in copyright case

Plaintiff sued defendant for copyright infringement over unlicensed use of plaintiff’s musical works in advertisements that defendant created and uploaded to YouTube. Defendant argued that the language and structure of plaintiff’s website – from which the works were downloaded – resulted in an express license or at least an implied license to use the musical works for commercial purposes. The court rejected these arguments and awarded summary judgment to plaintiff. 

No express license

The basis for defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s website gave rise to an express license is not clear. In any event, plaintiff argued that a browsewrap agreement in place on the website established that the works could not be used for commercial purposes without the payment of a license fee. Citing to the well-known browsewrap case of Specht v. Netscape, 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002), defendant argued that it did not have notice of the terms and conditions of the browsewrap agreement.

The court distinguished this case from Specht. In this case, plaintiff’s home page contained – similar to the case of Major v. McCallister, 302 S.W.3d 227 (Mo. Ct. App. 2009) – “immediately visible” hyperlinks that referenced terms of use and licensing information. A user did not have to scroll to find these links. So the terms and conditions of the browsewrap agreement were enforceable. Since the browsewrap agreement contained provisions requiring a license for commercial use, no reasonable jury could find that plaintiff had granted defendant an express license to use the musical works for commercial purposes free of charge. 

No implied license

Defendant argued in the alternative that plaintiff had granted defendant an implied license to use the musical works, based on (1) plaintiff’s company name “Freeplay,” and (2) the absence of any conspicuous warning that the works were not available for commercial use. 

The court found these arguments to be “easily disposed of.” Citing to I.A.E., Inc. v. Shaver, 74 F.3d 768 (7th Cir. 1996), the court noted that an implied license exists only when: 

  • a person (the licensee) requests the creation of a work,
  • the creator (the licensor) makes that particular work and delivers it to the licensee who requested it, and 
  • the licensor intends that the licensee-requestor copy and distribute his work.

The court found that defendant failed to prove any of these elements. Defendant never asked plaintiff to create any works. Nor did plaintiff make any works at defendant’s request to be used in defendant’s YouTube videos. Moreover, given plaintiff’s paid license requirements for business use of the copyrighted works available on its website, it could not be said that plaintiff intended that defendant download and distribute those works free of charge. Accordingly, the court found that no implied license existed.

Freeplay Music, LLC v. Dave Arbogast Buick-GMC, Inc., No. 17-42, 2019 WL 4647305 (S.D. Ohio, September 24, 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.

Plaintiff had no duty to “scour” the internet for infringements – statute of limitations did not bar copyright claim made 7 years after infringement

Plaintiff freelance photojournalist sued defendant website publisher for copyright infringement over photos plaintiff took of a luxury maximum security prison in Norway in 2010. Defendants posted the photos on its website in 2011 without permission, in connection with a widely-publicized story of a notorious mass shooter being relocated there. Plaintiff registered the copyright in his photos in 2015 and filed suit in 2018, claiming that he did not learn of the alleged infringement until 2016.

Each party filed motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff claimed that the court should enter summary judgment in his favor because he had a valid copyright to the photographs, and there was no dispute that defendant published several of them without authorization. Defendant asserted that plaintiff’s claims were time-barred by the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations, because he knew, or should have known, of the infringement when interest in the photos spiked following the remand of the alleged mass murderer to the prison where the photos were taken.

Photos included in copyright registration

The court found there was no genuine issue as to any material fact concerning plaintiff’s ownership of the copyright in the photos. And defendant conceded it published the photos without authorization. Defendant had challenged whether plaintiff’s copyright registration covered the photos at issue. Plaintiff had not introduced the deposit materials, but had submitted a sworn statement saying the photos had been included in the registration. The court found the sworn statement to carry the issue – had the defendant filed a motion to compel or sought the deposit materials from the copyright office, it may have been able to show the photos were not included. But on these facts, it was clear to the court that the copyright registration covered the photos.

Statute of limitations – no duty to scour

The court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the copyright infringement claims were not barred by the statute of limitations. Civil actions for copyright infringement must be “commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). The Second Circuit has stated that the “discovery rule” governs when the statute of limitations begins to run: an infringement claim does not ‘accrue’ until the copyright holder discovers, or with due diligence should have discovered, the infringement.

The court found that plaintiff’s knowledge about general interest in the prison following the news stories about the mass shooter being relocated there was not sufficient to constitute constructive discovery that his photographs of that prison were being infringed. Plaintiff did not have knowledge of any infringement of his work and there was no reason for him to think, or duty for him to scour the internet to find out if, anyone was using his photographs without his consent. The court cited Wu v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015 WL 5254885 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2015) to observe that “[i]f that were the expectation, then stock photo agencies and photographers likely would spend more money monitoring their licenses than they receive from issuing licenses.”

Masi v. Moguldom Media Group, 2019 WL 3287819 (S.D.N.Y., July 22, 2019)

Photographer’s copyright claim against officer of company over photos on website moves forward

Plaintiff, a professional photographer, sued defendant company and an individual who was its “registered agent and … officer, director, manager, and/or other genre of principal” for copyright infringement over two photographs that appeared on the defendant company’s website. The infringement claims against the individual defendant included one for vicarious infringement.

The individual defendant moved to dismiss the vicarious infringement claim. The court denied the motion.

One “infringes vicariously by profiting from direct infringement while declining to exercise a right to stop or limit it.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 930 (2005). “In order to establish vicarious liability, a copyright owner must demonstrate that the entity to be held so liable: (1) possessed the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity; and (2) possessed an obvious and direct financial interest in the exploited copyrighted materials.” Nelson-Salabes, Inc. v. Morningside Dev., LLC, 284 F.3d 505, 513 (4th Cir. 2002).

In this case, plaintiff alleged that the individual defendant controlled nearly all decisions of the company and was the dominant influence in the company. In addition, plaintiff alleged that the individual defendant “had the right and ability to supervise and/or control the infringing conduct of the company, and/or stop the infringements once they began.” Finally, plaintiff alleged that the individual defendant had an obvious and direct financial interest in the infringing activities of the company since he was an officer, director, manager or other principal of/for the company. As a principal of the company, the individual defendant’s financial interests were intertwined with the company’s. Therefore, the individual defendant had a direct and obvious financial interest in the company.

So the court concluded that plaintiff had presented sufficient facts with regard to each element of the vicarious liability claim.

Oppenheimer v. Morgan, 2019 WL 2617080 (W.D.N.C., June 26, 2019)

Affirmative defense asserting that Copyright Act is unconstituational survives motion to strike

Plaintiff sued defendant search engine for copyright infringement alleging that defendant wrongfully reposted a picture plaintiff had taken. Defendant’s answer included a number of affirmative defenses. Plaintiff moved to strike the affirmative defenses. The court struck some of them but allowed at least a couple of them to survive.

Unclean hands – Defendant apparently perceived some trollish behavior on the part of the plaintiff. Defendant alleged that, in light of plaintiff’s practice of taking photographs of no actual value, for which there is no market, and seeding them on the internet for the purpose of attempting to extort revenue through litigation, that the claims for equitable relief should be barred by unclean hands. Plaintiff objected, claiming that it was scandalous to characterize plaintiff’s enforcement efforts this way. The court found, though, that the defense was adequately pled and not scandalous. “While the … defense is unfavorable to Plaintiff, it does not ‘cast a cruelly derogatory light on’ Plaintiff as necessary for the Court to conclude that the defense is scandalous.”

Unconstitutionality of portions of Copyright Act – Defendant also asserted that 17 U.S.C. §§ 102 and 410, statues dealing with copyright protections, are unconstitutional as applied to pictures based on technological advancements in photography. Plaintiff responded by pointing out that the Supreme Court since 1884 has found copyright protection for photographs to be constitutional, and argued that defendant presented no cognizable legal argument to suggest that Congress exceeded its constitutional powers by enacting the Copyright Act. Perhaps surprisingly, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument. It noted that the defense was not insufficient, redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous, but that defendant was arguing that the law, or at least the application of the law, should be changed, and defendant presented grounds for its argument.

Miller v. 4Internet, LLC, 2019 WL 1937567 (D.Nev. April 30, 2019)

Fact that others had access to defendant’s wi-fi was no reason to quash subpoena in copyright case

In a suit against John Doe defendant for copyright infringement arising from defendant’s alleged distribution of plaintiff’s movies via BitTorrent, plaintiff sent a subpoena to Comcast – defendant’s ISP – seeking defendant’s identify.

Defendant moved to quash the subpoena, contending that being the target of the civil action was an undue burden, because there was a substantial likelihood that plaintiff would be unable to establish that defendant was actually the person responsible for the alleged infringement. Defendant also included a letter from his neighbor describing how that neighbor and others had used defendant’s wireless network.

The court denied the motion to quash. It held that even though defendant may turn out to be innocent, at this stage plaintiff was merely seeking to uncover his identity. The fact that other people had access to defendant’s unsecured wi-fi was immaterial. 

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 2019 WL 1865919 (N.D.Cal. April 25, 2019)

Installing earlier software version that lacked license check feature triggered DMCA anticircumvention liability

EGS and DDS were in a dispute over the use of DDS’s software. [You can read about the copyright infringement claims here.] DDS claimed EGS had failed to pay license fees for its software. So DDS installed an update that would confirm the current license, and if the license was not up to date, would lock the program. In response, EGS elected to use a previously-licensed and older version of the software that did not contain the license check feature. Because of this, DDS claimed that EGS violated the anticircumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

EGS moved to dismiss the DMCA anticircumvention claim. The court denied the motion. 

The DMCA provides, in relevant part, that “[n]o person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.” It goes on to state that “to ‘circumvent a technological measure’ means to descramble a scrambled work, to decrypt an encrypted work, or otherwise to avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure, without the authority of the copyright owner.” It also explains that “a technological measure ‘effectively controls access to a work’ if the measure, in the ordinary course of its operation, requires the application of information, or a process or a treatment, with the authority of the copyright owner, to gain access to the work.” 

EGS had argued in part that it did not violate the anticircumvention provisions because its conduct was like the defendant in the case of I.M.S. Inquiry Management Systems, Ltd. v. Berkshire Info. Systems, Inc., 307 F. Supp. 2d 521 (S.D.N.Y. 2004). In that case, the defendant used a legitimate username and password to gain access to the protected work. 

The court acknowledged that like the situation in I.M.S., EGS did not do anything to change or manipulate the DDS software. However, as the court noted, the fact remained that EGS allegedly removed the software and reinstalled a prior version. For that reason, I.M.S. and the similar case of Navistar, Inc. v. New Baltimore Garage, Inc., 2012 WL 4338816 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 20, 2012), were not to the contrary.

First, those cases acknowledged that removing a technological measure suffices to state a claim under the DMCA. Second, EGS had leaned heavily on the fact that DDS analogized its license check to a password protection system, and that the district courts in I.M.S. and Navistar reasoned that “using a password to access a copyrighted work, even without authorization, does not constitute circumvention under the DMCA …” But implicit in those courts’ reasoning was a recognition that the licensee already knew the password and thus had the key to the castle.

In this case, to the contrary, EGS had no way to go through the license check and access the current software except by removing it entirely. Accordingly, the court found that a more apt analogy was that EGS circumvented “the deployed technological measure in the measure’s gatekeeping capacity” by uprooting the locked gate.

Eclipse Gaming Systems, LLC v. Antonucci, 2019 WL 3988687 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 31, 2019)

See also:

Failure to pay software license fees was breach of contract, not copyright infringement

As part of a larger business dispute that found its way into litigation, counterclaimant DDS sued counterdefendant EGS for copyright infringement after EGS allegedly used DDS’s software without paying required license fees. EGS moved to dismiss the copyright infringement claims, asserting that there was no copyright infringement occurring, only a breach of the license agreement. The court granted the motion to dismiss. 

The court found that the provision of the agreement between the parties, requiring EGS to pay license fees, was a covenant and not a condition that must be met for use of the software to be authorized. The finding was critical because whether the failure of a non-exclusive licensee to pay royalties constitutes copyright infringement turns on the distinction between a promise subject to a condition and a covenant or contractual promise. Broadly speaking, the promise to pay royalties in a license agreement is generally considered a covenant, not a condition. 

In this case, the agreement between the parties provided that:

Upon [EGS’s] payment of [a one-time fee], and subject in each instance to [EGS’s] subsequent timely payment of the applicable [recurring] licensing fee, [DDS] hereby grants to [EGS] a limited, nonexclusive license . . . . 

The court determined this language established that DDS would install its software and then EGS would pay for the right to use the software. Under this line of thinking, the duty to pay fees did not accrue until the software was installed, meaning that payment could not be a condition on the rights to use the software (and that nonpayment would not be a failure of that condition). 

Eclipse Gaming Systems, LLC v. Antonucci, 2019 WL 3988687 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 31, 2019)

See also:

Company cannot avoid DMCA liability for false CMI by claiming it used its own name

Plaintiff sued defendant claiming defendant violated the DMCA by providing and distributing false copyright management information (“CMI”), in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1202(a)(1)–(2). Defendant had placed its brand name and logo on and adjacent to plaintiff’s photo within defendant’s advertising material. 

The part the DMCA relevant to this case provides that “[n]o person shall knowingly and with the intent to induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal infringement — (1) provide copyright management information that is false, or (2) distribute or import for distribution copyright management information that is false.”

Section 1202(c) defines CMI as “any of the following information conveyed in connection with copies or phonorecords of a work or performances or displays of a work, including in digital form, except that such term does not include any personally identifying information about a user of a work or of a copy, phonorecord, performance, or display of a work: …” (emphasis added). It goes on to list eight types of CMI, as relevant in this case: (2) the name of, and other identifying information about, the author of the work; (3) the name of, and other identifying information about, the copyright owner of the work, including the information set forth in a notice of copyright; and (7) identifying numbers or symbols referring to such information or links to such information.

Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the plain language of § 1202(c) excepts from the definition of CMI “any personally identifying information about a user of a work or of a copy, phonorecord, performance, or display of a work.” It reasoned that because plaintiff’s complaint defined defendant as a “user” of the photograph (i.e., by alleging that defendant used the photograph for commercial promotion) and because personally identifiable information includes names, the name of a user of a work is not, and cannot, be CMI.

The court rejected this argument and denied the motion to dismiss. It looked to the decision of another federal court, Tiermy v. Moschino S.P.A., No. 15-CV-5900, 2016 WL 4942033 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2016) in which a defendant had made a similar argument. As that court noted, defendant’s argument fell short on a logical basis. Taking defendant’s theory to the extreme, virtually any person who took another’s work and placed their name or brand on it could be considered a “user of a work” rather than an infringer, and escape liability. The court found that was not the intent of the statute, which is to protect the integrity of CMI by prohibiting the provision of false CMI. The court held that it cannot be, and defendant provided no authority in support, that an alleged infringer can escape liability under § 1202(a) simply because the false CMI put forth is the alleged infringer’s own name.

Roth v. The Walsh Co., 2019 WL 318404 (E.D. Wis. Jan. 24, 2019)

Willie Nelson meme on Facebook was not clearly fair use

Plaintiff photographer sued website publisher (who also maintained a Facebook page to go with the website) for copyright infringement. Plaintiff claimed defendant infringed plaintiff’s copyright in a photo plaintiff took of Willie Nelson when defendant posted the photo on Facebook with a cultural message superimposed over the photo in the form of a meme.

Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, on the basis of fair use. The court denied the motion, applying the fair use test set forth in 17 USC 109.

The court’s holding turned essentially on the idea that there were not yet enough facts in the record to support a finding of fair use, and that such a determination should be made later in the case, e.g., at summary judgment. For example, plaintiff had argued that defendant’s purpose was not transformative, and that it was in fact the same purpose plaintiff had for publishing the photo, namely, to identify Willie Nelson.

Philpot v. Alternet Media, Inc., 2018 WL 6267876 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 30, 2018)

Bittorrent copyright plaintiff got much gentler treatment in New York federal court

Less than a week after a federal judge in Washington D.C. lambasted serial copyright plaintiff Strike 3 Holdings, calling it a “troll” and characterizing its tactics as “smacking of extortion,” another federal judge – this time in New York – gave Strike 3 much gentler treatment, finding that “there is no evidence to support Defendant’s conclusory claims that Plaintiff is engaging in copyright troll litigation tactics in the instant lawsuit”.

In the case of Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, — F.Supp.3d —, 2018 WL 6166873 (W.D.N.Y, Nov. 26, 2018), the court denied the John Doe defendant’s motion to quash a subpoena sent to Doe’s ISP seeking to discover his identity so that plaintiff could serve him with the complaint.

The court did, however, include a nod to Doe’s privacy interests in ordering that he be permitted to proceed anonymously in the lawsuit. It modified the protective order to provide that the defendant not be referred to using his initials, but instead as “John Doe subscriber assigned IP address 69.204.6.161” in any public filings.

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, — F.Supp.3d —, 2018 WL 6166873 (W.D.N.Y, Nov. 26, 2018)

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

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