Category Archives: Litigation

Robbery conviction overturned because prosecutor played YouTube video during closing argument

Miller v. State, 2009 WL 3517627 (Ind. App. October 30, 2009)

Appellant Miller and his dad robbed Wedge’s Liquor Store in Logansport, Indiana back in November 2007. During the robbery Miller pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at the clerk’s face.

Get your grubby paws off my YouTube image

During closing argument at trial, the prosecutor showed the jury a video from YouTube to illustrate “how easy it was to conceal a weapon inside clothing.” The video was not admitted as evidence but was used merely as a demonstrative aid. The jury convicted Miller and the court sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

Miller appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court made a mistake in letting the jury see the YouTube video. The court agreed with Miller and reversed.

The court noted that experiments and demonstrations may be permitted during trial if they will aid the court and jury. But in this case the court of appeals found that the YouTube video showing how weapons could be concealed could not possibly provide such aid. The state conceded in its appeallate brief that Miller’s defense theory was mistaken identity. So “the whole issue about the ability to hide weapons under clothing was ultimately unimportant.”

Moreover, before showing the video to the jury, the prosecutor said that the video “[had] nothing to do with this case.” The court of appeals agreed with Miller’s argument that the video “[brought] alive the passions of the jury . . . and suggested Miller was not only the robber but that he also . . . intended to . . . cause injury or death.” The video “was irrelevant, prejudical, and confused issues. . . .”

YouTube evidence picture courtesy Flickr user PIAZZA del POPOLO under this Creative Commons license.

Court upholds eBay forum selection clause

Tricome v. Ebay, Inc., 2009 WL 3365873 (E.D. Pa. October 19, 2009)

Everyone who signs up to use eBay has to assent to the terms of eBay’s User Agreement. Among other things, the User Agreement contains a forum selection clause that states all disputes between the user and eBay must be brought to court in Santa Clara County, California.

After eBay terminated plaintiff Tricome’s account, Tricome sued eBay in federal court in Pennsylvania. eBay moved to dismiss or to at least transfer the case, arguing that the forum selection clause required it. The court agreed and transferred the case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Plaintiff had argued that the court should not enforce the forum selection clause because it was procedurally and perhaps substantively unconscionable. The court found the agreement not to be procedurally unconscionable because Plaintiff did not have to enter into the agreement in the first place — he only did it to increase his online business. Furthermore, eBay did not employ any high pressure tactics to get Plaintiff to accept the User Agreement. Moreover, eBay had a legitimate interest in not being forced to litigate disputes all around the country.

The court likewise found the User Agreement was not substantively unconscionable either. It would not “shock the conscience” for a person to hear that eBay — an international company — would undertake efforts to focus litigation it is involved with into a single jurisdiction. Furthermore, having the forum selection clause would conserve judicial and litigant resources, in that parties and the courts would know in advance where the appropriate place for disputes concerning eBay would be heard. Finally (and rehashing an earlier point regarding procedural unconscionability), Plaintiff had a meaningful choice — he could have decided not to do business on eBay in the first place.

Map photo courtesy Flickr user sidewalk flying under this Creative Commons license.

Record companies win $1.92 million in case against individual file sharer

There has only been one copyright infringement case filed against an individual accused of illegally sharing music files over the internet to actually go to trial. That’s the case of Capitol Records v. Jammie Thomas. In October 2007, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota returned a verdict of $222,000 against Ms. Thomas. The court on its own motion vacated that judgment, and ordered a retrial. That retrial concluded on June 18, 2009, with a judgment of a whopping $1.92 million against Ms. Thomas.

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Domain name not tangible property that could satisfy judgment

Palacio del Mar Homeowners Assn., Inc. v. McMahon, — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2009 WL 1668294 (Cal. App. 4 Dist. June 16, 2009)

A California state court entered a $40,000 judgment against defendant McMahon in favor of plaintiff homeowners association. The homeowners association tried to collect the money from McMahon, seeking a “turnover” of property McMahon owned. Among the items the homeowners association sought was the domain name ahrc.com, registered in the name of McMahon’s wife.

The trial court permitted the domain name to be turned over to the homeowners association to satisfy the judgment. McMahon sought review with the California Court of Appeal. That court reversed and vacated the turnover order.

The court gave several reasons for reversing the lower court. The most interesting reason, however, dealt with the very nature of domain names. The provision in California law allowing turnover of property limits itself to tangible property that can be “levied upon by taking it into custody.” Looking to the case of Network Solutions, Inc. v. Umbro International, Inc., 529 S.E.2d 80 (Va. 2000), the court held that a domain name registration is not property, but merely supplies the intangible contractual right to use a unique domain name for a specified period of time. Even if the registration were property, it was not something that could be taken into custody.

Facebook message was not witness tampering

Maldonado v. Municipality of Barceloneta, 2009 WL 636016 (D. Puerto Rico March 11, 2009)

Diaz was a defendant in a federal case in which Febus was a witness for the plaintiff. Diaz invited Febus to join a Facebook group, but Febus declined. Later Diaz sent a message through Facebook which, after translation, read as follows:

If you want to see the evidence that exists against the municipality let me know so that you can inform yourself well and please consult with a lawyer your civil responsibilities as far as defamation. Soon we will be filing a lawsuit and you could be included. My only request is that you are objective when mentioning my name.

Febus sought a protective order under the federal witness tampering statute, 18 U.S.C. 1512 which provides, in relevant part, that “[w]hoever knowingly uses intimidation, threatens, or corruptly persuades another …, or attempts to do so, … with [the] intent to … cause or induce any person to … withhold testimony … from an official proceeding[,]” is guilty under the statute.

The court denied the motion for protective order, finding that there was no evidence, neither raised by the plaintiff nor observable through inference, that Diaz intended to intimidate Febus. “This court can only see one threat in his Facebook message: the threat of future litigation. This is an insufficient basis for finding witness tampering.”

Clickwrap binding despite claim of no opportunity to read terms

Via Viente Taiwan, L.P. v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 2009 WL 398729 (E.D. Tex. February 17, 2009)

A federal court in Texas held the clickwrap agreement between United Parcel Service and one of its customers was binding. After plaintiff Via Viente sued UPS in Texas, UPS moved to transfer venue to the Northern District of Georgia, citing to a forum selection clause in a license agreement governing Via Viente’s use of a UPS-provided software program that allowed Via Viente to print labels and manage product shipments.

Via Viente argued that the clickwrap agreement (and by extension the forum selection clause) was not binding because a UPS technician installed the application on a Via Viente computer, and therefore Via Viente never had a chance to agree to the terms. The court rejected that argument for the following three reasons:

  • Via Viente was a sophisticated company and “should have been aware that terms of service were forthcoming” after having signed the general Carrier Agreement with UPS that required the use of the software;
  • It was “difficult to believe” that Via Viente would have left the UPS technician installing the software unsupervised. Moreover, it was not UPS’s practice to install the software unsupervised;
  • Via Viente had kept the benefit of the bargain (convenience and “palatable” shipping costs) so it would have been inequitable to allow it to disavow provisions it did not like.

After finding the clickwrap agreement to be binding, the court went on to find the forum selection clause enforceable, and transferred the matter to the Northern District of Georgia.

EULA photo courtesy Flickr user johntrainor under this Creative Commons license.

RIAA’s need for discovery was not so urgent

Elektra Entertainment Group, Inc. v. Does 1-6, No. 08-444 (S.D. Ohio February 5, 2009)

The RIAA’s de-emphasis on lawsuits against individual file sharers may underlie the result in a recent case from a federal court in Ohio. The music industry plaintiffs had sought expedited discovery so they could learn which members in a household (either the mother or one of the children) was responsible for illegally trading files. Finding that the need for the discovery was not urgent, the court denied the record companies’ request.

Electra Entertainment and others sued one David Licata in 2007, accusing him of infringing the copyright in sound recordings back in 2005. Licata claimed he did not know who was responsible for trading the files (though AOL had identified Licata’s account as corresponding with the offending IP address). During discovery in that case, however, Licata identified the other members of his household.

Instead of suing one or more of these other members of the household, the recording industry plaintiffs filed another John Doe suit, leaving it to later to find out the identities of the particular individuals who were allegedly infringing. But instead of acting diligently to figure out who to go after, the record companies did nothing for about five months.

Last November, the court ordered the plaintiffs to show cause why the case should not be dismissed, since the defendants had not been served with process (after all, the record companies claimed they didn’t know who to sue). In response to that order, the plaintiffs sought leave under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(d) to take expedited discovery. The court denied the motion, holding that there was not good cause shown to accelerate the normal discovery schedule.

The court looked to the long period of time — 152 days — that had passed from the suit being filed to the request for expedited discovery. That duration, coupled with the fact that the plaintiffs already knew the names of the other family members who were likely the proper defendants, undercut any argument that the need for discovery was urgent. Without such urgency (which usually exists when there is a risk that evidence will be destroyed or someone will be injured), there was no good cause to allow the depositions of the mother and children prior to the Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f) conference.

[Hat tip to Ray Beckerman for alerting me to this decision.]

Photo courtesy Flickr user swanksalot under this Creative Commons license.

What could the RIAA’s switch in strategy mean?

The Wall Street Journal and others are reporting that the Recording Industry Association of America is adjusting its strategy for combating the massive infringement occasioned by the sharing of music files over the internet. Since 2003, that strategy has been to pursue copyright infringement cases against individual file sharers. The RIAA now says it will focus less on pursuing infringement litigation and more on working with internet service providers to shut down the accounts of individuals suspected of illegally trading files.

This is the third wave in the recording industry’s attack on digital piracy:

  • First wave: The labels went after the purveyors of the software used in file sharing. There are reported decisions involving Napster, Aimster and Kazaa, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court decision in MGM v. Grokster.
  • Second wave: The thousands of lawsuits against individual file sharers. Though it’s said that the RIAA sued some 35,000 people, only one of those cases went through to verdict (the Jammie Thomas case). Most settled for a few thousand dollars.
  • Third wave: Rejection of the massive litigation model (announced today) and collaboration with ISPs to combat file sharing.

So what does this change in strategy tell us? Does it mean that the RIAA has given up and the file sharers have won? It’s hard to tell. But there may be some insight to be had into the broader picture of digital copyright enforcement. Here are some observations:

  • The ability to easily make innumerable perfect copies creates a problem for copyright holders that must be addressed at a systemic level (like at the ISP level). The suits against individuals are too much like whack-a-mole to have practical effect.
  • The question of whether merely making a copy available can be infringement is problematic. So it was probably a good time for the litigation to end so that that question doesn’t have many more opportunities to be answered unfavorably for the RIAA.
  • It makes less sense to think of copyright in terms of the right to “copy” as it did in the analog-only world. What’s more important now, it seems, is a distribution or access right. Another reason to focus on the ISPs and not the individuals. For more on this, see the work of Ernest Miller and Joan Feigenbaum, Taking the Copy Out of Copyright [Warning – PDF file].
  • Shifting to a model of “punishing” file sharers before claims of infringement can be litigated presents some issues that implicate due process. See Cindy Cohn’s comments in this article.
  • Regardless of the legal merits of one’s claim (i.e., the RIAA certainly has legitimate rights to enforce), there is a public relations downside to standing up for those rights.

No matter what the shift of strategy really means, the fact that there is a shift at all demonstrates the changing dymanic of the music industry. And it points to a shift, both practical and normative, in the manner copyright law applies to the digital content.

Photo courtesy Flickr user [nati] under this Creative Commons license.

Court enforces forum selection clause in web hosting agreement

Bennett v. Hosting.com, Inc., 2008 WL 4951020 (N.D. Cal. November 18, 2008)

Bennett filed an astounding 30-count complaint against defendant Hosting.com. Though the Managed Hosting Agreement designated Jefferson County, Kentucky to be the sole and exclusive venue for actions brought in connection with the agreement, Bennet brought the action in federal court in Northern California. Hosting.com moved to dismiss for improper venue. The court granted the motion.

Kentucky on a map

The court held that Bennett failed to prove that the forum selection clause in the hosting agreement was unreasonable. The fact that Hosting.com may have had superior bargaining power and the agreement appeared to be non-negotiable was not enough to render the agreement unconscionable. Moreover, Bennett failed to demonstrate how the forum selection clause was against any public policy of California. And the court rejected her argument that the case belonged in California because Kentucky does not recognize certain of the causes of actions in the complaint. After all, a Kentucky court could apply California law.

The court also rejected Bennett’s argument that the forum selection clause shouldn’t apply because a number of the claims arose from tort law and did not involve the agreement. This argument was rejected because many of the tort claims would require the same findings of fact as the contract-related claims. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the forum selection clause was broad. All the claims appeared to be “in connection with” the agreement. That was enough in this case to bring them in.

(Missing Kentucky image courtesy Flickr user dog_manor under this Creative Commons license.)

No judicial notice for Wikipedia entry

Flores v. State, No. 2008 WL 4683960 (Tx. App. October 23, 2008)

Not surprisingly, a Texas appellate court has held that it should not take judicial notice of a Wikipedia article.

Defendant was tried and convicted for cocaine possession. He appealed his sentence, arguing the trial court improperly admitted two oral statements the defendant made while being interrogated. Defendant apparently objected to the method investigators used to interrogate him, because he asked the appellate court to take judicial notice of the Wikipedia entry for the John Reid technique.

Citing to a Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year, the court declined to treat Wikipedia as a “reliable website,” instead invoking the overworn observation that Wikipedia’s greatest strength (its open platform) is also its greatest weakness.

At least one other court has declined giving judicial notice to a Wikipedia entry. This past May, the defendant in the trademark case Cynergy Ergonomics, Inc. v. Ergonomic Partners, Inc., 2008 WL 2064967 (E.D. Mo. May 14, 2008) asked the court to take judicial notice of the Wikipedia article about DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man.

The Cynergy Ergonomics court looked to Fed. R. Evid. 201 which provides that a court may take judicial notice of a fact not in the record where it is “either (1) generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court or (2) capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.” While not expressly criticizing the reliability of Wikipedia, the court found that the entry did not meet the criteria for judicial notice.

Interrogation room photo courtesy Flickr user Vincent Tulio via this Creative Commons license. Vitruvian Man has been in the public domain for quite some time.