Design Furnishings, Inc. v. Zen Path LLC, No. 10-2765, 2010 WL 4321568 (E.D. Cal. October 21, 2010)
Decision shows court’s willingness to crack down on overreaching rights holders and abusive DMCA takedown practices.
Plaintiff and defendant both sell wicker furniture on eBay. Defendant sent 63 notices to eBay complaining that plaintiffs auctions infringed on defendant’s purported copyright in the furniture.
So plaintiff filed a lawsuit over the barrage of DMCA takedown notices, claiming, among other things, that defendant violated 17 U.S.C. 512(f) by knowingly and materially misrepresenting that plaintiff’s eBay auctions contained infringing material. Plaintiff asked the court to grant a temporary restraining order (TRO), stopping defendant from sending the notices to eBay. The court granted the motion.
The court found that plaintiff would likely succeed on its Section 512(f) claim because of the strong inference that defendant knew it did not have a valid copyright claim. On this point, the court found that the defendant appeared to be claiming copyright protection in the industrial design of the wicker furniture. But the Copyright Act excludes “useful articles” from the scope of copyright protection.
The court also found plaintiff might suffer irreparable harm if defendant were permitted to keep sending the bogus DMCA takedown notices. If eBay were to suspend plaintiff’s account, plaintiff might lose prospective customers and goodwill. This sort of harm was intangible and not capable of measurement. Because of the risk of harm, the court also found that the balance of equities tipped in plaintiff’s favor.
Finally, the court found that the TRO would serve the public interest. On this point the court made the intriguing observation that eBay’s policies of taking down content upon the mere allegations of infringement reverses the ordinary burden of proof in copyright infringement matters. The court granted the TRO to prevent defendant from “effectively shut[ting] down a competitor’s business on eBay simply by filing the notice that the seller’s product allegedly infringes on the complaining party’s copyright.”
The question of whether and to what extent a website operator should be liable for the copyright infringement occasioned by the content uploaded by the site’s users is one of the central problems of internet law. In talks I’ve given on this topic of “secondary liability,” I’ve often referred it simply as “the YouTube problem”: should YouTube be liable for the infringing content people upload, especially when it knows that there is infringing material.
Today was a big day in the history of that problem. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of YouTube in the notorious billion dollar copyright lawsuit brought against YouTube by Viacom way back in 2007.
The court held that the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) (at 17 USC 512) protected YouTube from Viacom’s direct and secondary copyright claims.
Simply stated, the DMCA protects online service providers from liability for copyright infringement arising from content uploaded by end users if a number of conditions are met. Among those conditions are that the service provider “not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system or network is infringing,” or in the absence of such actual knowledge, “is not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent.”
The major issue in the case was whether YouTube met these conditions of “non-knowledge” (that’s my term, not the court’s) so that it could be in the DMCA safe harbor. Viacom argued that the infringement was so pervasive on YouTube that the site should have been aware of the infringement and thus not in the safe harbor. YouTube of course argued otherwise.
The court sided with YouTube :
Mere knowledge of prevalence of such activity in general is not enough. . . . To let knowledge of a generalized practice of infringement in the industry, or of a proclivity of users to post infringing materials, impose responsibility on service providers to discover which of their users’ postings infringe a copyright would contravene the structure and operation of the DMCA.
Given the magnitude of the case, there’s little doubt this isn’t the end of the story — we’ll almost certainly see the case appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Stay tuned.
Actuate Corp. v. IBM Corp., No. 09-5892 (N.D. Cal. April 5, 2010) [Scroll down for opinion]
Distribution of software license keys on the internet may constitute trafficking in circumvention technology, which is prohibited under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”)
Plaintiff software licensor sued defendant for, among other things, violation of the anticircumvention provisions of the DMCA found at 17 USC 1201. Plaintiff alleged that defendant posted license keys on the internet, which purportedly would enable plaintiff’s software to be “installed on an unlimited basis.”
The I.M.S. line of cases hold that the use of a password issued by the copyright holder does not amount to “circumvention” under the DMCA. Under this thinking, the use of an issued password, even if done without authority, does not result in the “avoiding, bypassing, removing, deactivating, or otherwise impairing [of] a technological measure.”
But another line of cases, headed by 321 Studios v. MGM Studios, Inc. suggests differently. The court in 321 Studios reasoned that unauthorized use of a decryption code (the same one issued by the manufacturer) to bypass the encryption on a DVD served to avoid and bypass the encryption.
In this case, despite both parties’ attempts to show the compatibility of the lines of cases, the court found them to be irreconcilable. It sided with the thinking behind the 321 Studios line, finding no support for a distinction between passwords and other types of code that might be used for decryption.
CNET News is running a story about how Jerry Scroggin, the owner of Louisiana’s Bayou Internet and Communications, expects big media to pay him for complying with DMCA takedown notices. No doubt Scroggin gets a little PR boost for his maverick attitude, and CNET keeps its traffic up by covering a provocative topic. After all, people love to see the little guy stick it to the man.
Here is something from the article that caught my attention:
Small companies like [Bayou] are innocent bystanders in the music industry’s war on copyright infringement. Nonetheless, they are asked to help enforce copyright law free of charge.
A couple of assumptions in this statement need addressing. I submit that:
ISPs are not innocent bystanders.
As much as one may disdain the RIAA, the organization is enforcing legitimate copyright rights. Though an ISP may have no bad intent to help people infringe (i.e., the “innocent” part), infringing content does pass through their systems. And few would disagree that the owner of a system is in the best position to control what happens in that system. So unless we’re going to turn the entire network over to a government, we must rely on the ISPs at the lower parts of the web to comply with the DMCA. They owe a duty. It’s in this way that the ISPs are anything by innocent bystanders in the copyright wars. In fact, they’re soldiers (albeit perhaps drafted).
Though the administrative burdens of DMCA compliance fall on the ISPs, the work is not undertaken for free.
The safe harbor that ISPs enjoy in return for compliance is a huge compensation. An entity in the safe harbor has more certainty that a suit for infringement would be unsuccessful. Were there more doubt about the outcome, there would be more litigation. More litigation equals more cost. And I guarantee you that those litigation costs would dwarf the administrative costs associated with taking down content identified in a notice. So substract the administrative costs from the hypothetical litigation costs, and there you have the compensation paid to ISPs for compliance.