The 2012 presidential election cycle is already giving internet law enthusiasts things to talk about. Last week it was Ron Paul’s grumblings about an unauthorized campaign ad on YouTube. Now NBC is moaning about a Mitt Romney ad comprised almost entirely of Tom Brokaw on the Nightly News in 1997.
And NBC knows that. Romney’s campaign posted the ad on YouTube five days ago, and it is yet to be the subject of a DMCA takedown notice. Though such a notice would be easy to draft and send, NBC is aware that the fallout could be expensive. Section 512(f) of the DMCA penalizes the senders of bogus takedown notices. And the courts have not taken kindly to purported victims of infringement who do not fully consider fair use before having content taken off YouTube.
With the election still months away, we may yet see controversial action like we did in 2008 by the news media to disable political content. These situations underscore the problem presented by how long it takes to process DMCA counternotifications and 512(f) actions.
A candidate’s defeat makes these processes moot. So maybe we should hope for a longer republican primary season just so we can see some good DMCA and fair use litigation. Come on NBC, send that takedown notice!
If I left my coat in a taxi that was later impounded because, unknown to me, the driver was transporting heroin in the trunk, would I be left out in the cold?
People who used Megaupload to lawfully store and transfer files are rightfully upset that their stuff is unavailable after last week’s raid. Some groups in other countries say they are going to sue the U.S. government. Would a lawsuit like that get anywhere in a U.S. court?
The Fifth Amendment — best known for its privilege against self-incrimination — says that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation”. (You can impress your legally-trained friends at parties by confidently and casually referring to the Takings Clause.) Does the Takings Clause give innocent Megaupload users a right to be paid the value of the files they are being deprived of while the feds use the servers on which those files are stored to prove their case against Kim Dotcom and company?
Back in 2008, Ilya Somin and Orin Kerr had a conversation on the Volokh Conspiracy discussing this question of whether the Fifth Amendment protects innocent third parties who lose property in a criminal investigation. If you read that commentary you will see that a case over the Megaupload takedown might be tough for a number of esoteric reasons, not the least of which is Supreme Court precedent.
There are some face-value problems with a case like this as well. Has the government taken the property for a “public use”? One could argue that the reason the servers (including the innocent content) were seized was for the so-called public good of going after piracy. But then the innocent content is not being “used” in connection with the prosecution — it just happens to be there.
I do not pretend to know the answers to this inquiry, and I’m relying on sharper Constitutional minds than mine to leave some good comments. (If you know Ilya Somin or Orin Kerr, send them a link to this post!) All I know is that it does not seem fair that users of the cloud should so easily be deprived in the name of law enforcement.
Kashmir Hill pointed out that at least one erstwhile file sharing service has changed its business model in response to the federal government’s action against Megaupload. She observes that:
FileSonic users can’t be too happy to have one of the main features of the site taken away. But the company must be less worried about its breach of contract with existing users than it is about the possibility of getting the Megaupload treatment, i.e., arrest, seizure of its property, and a criminal indictment.
This raises an important point. Any kind of online service that pushes the legal envelope may want to build in some mechanisms to pull back with impunity if it gets freaked out or loses its envelope-pushing courage. Said another way, that service should not make promises to its users that it cannot keep in the event the service wants to change what it is doing.
Some well known user generated content sites do this pretty well already in their terms of service. For example:
Dropbox: “We reserve the right to suspend or end the Services at any time, with or without cause, and with or without notice.”
“YouTube reserves the right to discontinue any aspect of the Service at any time.”
Reddit: “We also reserve the right to discontinue the Program, or change the content or formatting of the Program, at any time without notice to you, and to require the immediate cessation of any specific use of the Program.”
Facebook (being kind of vague): “If you . . . create risk or possible legal exposure for us, we can stop providing all or part of Facebook to you.”
All good examples of foresight in drafting website terms and conditions that help innovative sites with damage control.
Earlier this week Eriq Gardner speculated in a tweet that less than one tenth of one percent of folks have actually read the SOPA legislation. I bet he’s right. It’s good to read the statute. But what might be worse than not reading it is reading it wrongly and thereafter propagating misunderstanding.
One of the motifs that has permeated the SOPA discussion is this idea that evil (usually corporate) interests could shut down entire, innocent sites based on one piece of user generated content on that site that is, or links to, infringing material.
Some commentators, such as the usually astute Khan Academy in the video embedded below, have gone so far as to say that one little transgression by one user could bring down all of Facebook, YouTube, or Vimeo. (That discussion begins at about the 5:00 mark where the narrator purports to parse the language of Section 103 of SOPA.)
We are fortunate to have the means and motivation to rally around an issue like SOPA and make it a topic of worldwide discussion. But it turns unfortunate when some of the loudest criticism is based on misinformation. That’s happening now.
It is silly to think that one person could bring down Facebook and leave its almost a billion users in the dark. It is silly to think that Congress would enact legislation making that possible. Those thoughts are silly because they are not based on reality. One user could not cause Facebook to be shut down, and SOPA does provide content owners with a way to accomplish that.
If you take a close look at SOPA, (and of course you should) you see that this “one person taking down Facebook” conclusion is not supported by the language of the statute.
If a federal judge is convinced that a site is “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property,” then he or she can enter an injunction (according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and all the case law attendant thereto) shutting down that site’s domain name.
The present misunderstanding comes from a reading of SOPA’s definition in Section 103 of what it means for a site to be “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” That definition is much narrower than what other commentators would have you believe. Among other things, the site has to be:
primarily designed or operated for the purpose of offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting,
have only limited purpose or use other than offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting, or
be marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting.
A less-than-careful reading leads one to think that the definition brings in any site that enables or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting. Read the definition again. Is Facebook primarily designed to rip off US property? Is it used for only a little more (i.e., does it have a limited purpose) other than to enable or promote piracy? Does Mark Zuckerberg say that is what it is for? Because the answers to these questions are no, no and no, a federal judge would not conclude that Facebook is a site dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.
If that federal judge were to so conclude, then he would likely be smoking dope. And if that is the state of affairs, then our problem is not SOPA, but federal judges smoking dope.
The fervent opposition to SOPA leads one to be reminded, like David Newhoff was in this piece, of the “death panel” hyperbole that surrounded the healthcare debate. It might be the same part of the brain at work that caused all the irrationality in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup. I’m just sayin’.
Principled and reasonable debate is awesome. Misguided arguments waste everyone’s time.
Hard Drive Productions, Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 90412 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2012)
In a mass copyright infringement suit, plaintiff served a subpoena on an internet service provider and got the identifying information for the account holder suspected of trading a copy of a movie via BitTorrent. The account holder was uncooperative with plaintiff’s offers to settle, and denied downloading the file.
Instead of simply naming the identified account holder as a defendant in the case and proceeding with ordinary discovery, plaintiff asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery,” namely, to depose the account holder to learn about:
the account holder’s involvement with the alleged distribution
his computers and network setup
his technical savvy
other users who may have had access to the computers or network
The court denied plaintiff’s request for leave to engage in the expedited discovery. It found that unlike other copyright cases in which anonymous infringers were identified, the efforts in this case “went far beyond seeking to identify a Doe defendant.” Instead, the court observed, it would be “a full-on deposition during which [the account holder] who plaintiff admits is likely not represented by counsel, may unwarily incriminate himself on the record before he has even been named as a defendant and served with process.”
Last night I appeared in a piece that aired on the 9 o’clock news here in Chicago, talking about the legal issues surrounding isanyoneup.com. (That site is definitely NSFW and I’m not linking to it because it doesn’t deserve the page rank help.) The site presents some interesting legal questions, like whether and to what extent it is shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for the harm that arises from the content it publishes (I don’t think it is shielded completely). The site also engages in some pretty blatant copyright infringement, and does not enjoy safe harbor protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Back in 2008, Apple sued Psystar for copyright infringement arising from Psystar’s manufacture and distribution of computers preloaded with copies of Mac OS X. Psystar lost at the trial court level, with the judge rejecting its argument that Apple engaged in anti-competitive, “copyright misuse” by requiring in its OS X software license agreement that the operating system be used only on Apple hardware. Psystar sought review of this ruling. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Copyright misuse is a defense (not an independent cause of action) that one sued for infringement can raise. Courts will find that a plaintiff has engaged in copyright misuse if the enforcement of the plaintiff’s copyright will restrain the development of competing products. In this case, Psystar claimed that Apple’s enforcement of its software license restrained the development of competing hardware.
The court rejected that argument because Apple’s enforcement of its software license agreement, requiring that the software be used only on Apple hardware, did not restrict Psystar from developing its own software. The court found that:
Apple’s [software license agreement] does not restrict competitor’s [sic.] to develop their own software, nor does it preclude customers from using non-Apple components with Apple computers. Instead, Apple’s [software license agreement] merely restricts the use of Apple’s own software to its own hardware. . . . Psystar produces its own computer hardware and it is free to develop its own computer software.
This case solidifies Apple’s approach to enforcing a controlled, closed ecosystem for the distribution of software used for Macs and iDevices. Now that a federal court has found that Apple is not playing unfairly by keeping its users from loading Apple software onto non-Apple hardware, the company can likewise maintain the technological controls that ensure only approved applications are used in connection with the operating systems. Marketplaces for third-party hardware running Apple software would greatly lower the entry barrier for hackers and enthusiasts to play outside of the rules. But this decision from the Ninth Circuit keeps those rules firmly in place.
First Time Videos v. Does 1-18, 2011 WL 4079177 (S.D. Indiana, September 13, 2011)
Plaintiff owns the copyright in an adult film that a swarm of anonymous “Doe” BitTorrent users allegedly traded. So plaintiff filed suit for infringement in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana and issued subpoenas to the internet service providers associated with the IP addresses of the unknown Doe defendants.
After one of the Doe defendant’s ISP, Insight Communications, put her on notice that the ISP was about to turn over her account information to plaintiff’s lawyer, Doe filed a motion to quash the subpoena. The court denied the motion.
Doe had raised several common arguments in support of the motion to quash. But the court rejected each of these:
Plaintiff had no protectable privacy interest in her ISP account information because that was held by a third party, namely, the ISP. Moreover, the court found that a subscriber has no privacy interest when there is an allegation of copyright infringement. (It would have been nice had the court put the words “valid” or “prima facie” before the word “allegation,” but alas, it did not.)
Responding to the subpoena was not unduly burdensome to Doe. The burden, if any, in responding to the plaintiff’s subpoena, would fall onto the ISP, not the anonymous defendant.
The fact that Doe denied involvement with trading porn files did not matter at this stage in the litigation. The court held that the question of liability for copyright infringement should be determined when the parties are properly brought into the suit.
So the court concluded that the anonymous Doe BitTorrent user should be identified.
West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 2292239 (D.D.C. June 10, 2011)
The judge in one of the well-known mass copyright cases filed by Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver a/k/a U.S. Copyright Group (West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829) has issued an order denying motions to quash filed by several of the unnamed defendants. Plaintiff had served subpoenas on the ISPs associated with the IP addresses allegedly involved in Bittorrent activity, seeking to learn the identity of those account holders.
The ruling is potentially troubling because the court refused to even consider the arguments presented by those anonymous parties who did not reveal their identity in connection with the motion to quash. Such an approach undermines, and indeed comes close to refusing altogether to recognize any privacy interest that a person may have concerning his or her ISP account information.
The court observed that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a party must identify himself or herself in the papers filed with the court. In some situations, however, a court may grant a “rare dispensation” of anonymity after taking into account the risk of unfairness to the party seeking anonymity as well as the general presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.
In this case, the court noted that other courts had “uniformly held that the privacy interest in [ISP account] information is minimal and not significant enough to warrant the special dispensation of anonymous filing.”
Absent from the court’s analysis was the potential for harm to defendants who were the subject of these subpoenas but might have the ability to demonstrate (anonymously) that they were not involved. In cases involving adult content, in particular, the harm of being publicly associated with that content — even if the association turns out to be in error — is one that should not be disregarded in this way. Moreover, taking away the ability of an anonymous defendant to challenge his unmasking will encourage extortionate-like behavior on the part of copyright plaintiffs hoping to extract a settlement early in the case. If writing a check is the only way to keep from having to turn one’s name over (and this case pretty much establishes that rule), then more settlements should be expected.
The court went on to reject the arguments in favor of motions to quash filed by John Does who had provided their contact information to the court. The court found that it was premature to rule on any objections based on a lack of personal jurisdiction because the defendants filing the motions had not actually been named as a party. And the court rejected the arguments that the defendants were improperly joined into the action, noting the allegations in the complaint that the IP addresses were involved in a single Bittorrent swarm.
Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to email@example.com, call (630) 362-7237, follow on Twitter at @internetcases, and be sure to like Internet Cases on Facebook.