Category Archives: Litigation

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.

Expedited electronic discovery includes subpoena to ISP and imaging of defendants’ hard drives

Allcare Dental Management, LLC v. Zrinyi, No. 08-407, 2008 WL 4649131 (D. Idaho October 20, 2008)

Plaintiffs filed a defamation lawsuit against some known defendants as well as some anonymous John Doe defendants in federal court over statements posted to Complaintsboard.com. The plaintiffs did not know the names or contact information of the Doe defendants, so they needed to get that information from the Does’ Internet service provider.  But the ISP would not turn that information over without a subpoena because of the restrictions of the Cable Communications Policy Act, 47 U.S.C. § 501 et seq. [More on the CCPA.]

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1), a party generally may not seek discovery in a case until the parties have had a Rule 26(f) conference to discuss such things as discovery. Because of the Rule 26(d)(1) requirement, the plaintiffs found themselves in a catch-22 of sorts: how could they know with whom to have the Rule 26(f) conference if they did not know the defendants’ identity.

So the plaintiffs’ filed a motion with the court to allow a subpoena to issue to the ISP prior to the Rule 26(f) conference. Finding that there was good cause for the expedited discovery, the court granted the motion. It found that the subpoena was needed to ascertain the identities of the unknown defendants. [More on Doe subpoenas.] Furthermore, it was important to act sooner than later, because ISPs retain data for only a limited time.

The Plaintiffs also contended that that the known defendants would likely delete relevant information from their computer hard drives before the parties could engage in the ordinary process of discovery. So the plaintiffs’ motion also sought an order requiring the known defendants to turn over their computers to have their hard drives copied.

The court granted this part of the motion as well, ordering the known defendants to turn their computers over to the plaintiffs’ retained forensics professional immediately. The forensics professional was to make the copies of the hard drives and place those copies with the court clerk, not to be accessed or reviewed until stipulation of the parties or further order from the court.

Subpoena to university in P2P case must give time to notify parents

UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Doe, No. 08-3999, 2008 WL 4104207 (N.D.Cal. September 4, 2008)

Plaintiff record companies, using Media Sentry, found the IP address of a John Doe file-sharing defendant, and filed suit against Doe in federal court for copyright infringement. As in any case where a defendant is known only by his or her IP address, the record companies needed some discovery to ascertain the name and physical address matching that IP address. But the federal rules of procedure say that without a court order, a party cannot seek discovery until the parties have conferred pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f).

So the record companies sought the court order allowing them to issue a subpoena to Doe’s Internet service provider prior to the 26(f) conference. The court granted the order, but with a caveat.

The evidence showed that Doe was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act at 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, a college generally cannot disclose “any personally identifiable information in education records other than directory information.” There’s an exception to that rule when the college is answering a lawfully issued subpoena, provided that “parents and the students are notified of all such … subpoenas in advance of the compliance therewith by the educational institution or agency.”

The court granted the record companies’ motion for leave to serve the subpoena prior to the Rule 26(f) conference, but required that the subpoena’s return date “be reasonably calculated to permit the University to notify John Doe and John Doe’s parents if it chooses prior to responding to the subpoena.”

Veoh eligible for DMCA Safe Harbor

[Brian Beckham is a contributor to Internet Cases and can be contacted at brian.beckham [at] gmail dot com.]

Io Group, Inc. v. Veoh Networks, Inc., 2008 WL 4065872 (N.D.Cal. Aug. 27, 2008)

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that Veoh’s hosting of user-provided content is protected by the DMCA safe harbor provision, and that it does not have a duty to police for potential copyright infringement on behalf of third-parties, but rather must act to remove infringing content when so put on notice.

IO produces adult films; Veoh hosts, inter alia, its own “Internet TV channels” and user-posted content (much like YouTube). In June 2006, IO discovered clips from ten (10) of its copyrighted films ranging from 6 seconds to 40 minutes in length hosted on Veoh. Rather than sending Veoh a “DMCA Notice & Takedown” letter, IO filed the instant copyright infringement suit. (Coincidentally, Veoh had already removed all adult content sua sponte — including IO’s prior to the suit). Had Veoh received such a notice, so the story goes, it would have removed the content, and terminated the posting individual’s account.

When a user submits a video for posting, Veoh’s system extracts certain metadata (e.g., file format and length), assigns a file number, extracts several still images (seen on the site as an icon), and converts the video to Flash. Prior to posting, Veoh’s employees randomly spot check the videos for compliance with Veoh’s policies (i.e., that the content is not infringing third-party copyrights). On at least one occasion, such a spot check revealed infringing content (an unreleased movie) which was not posted.

Veoh moved for summary judgment under the DMCA’s Safe Harbors which “provide protection from liability for: (1) transitory digital network communications; (2) system caching; (3) information residing on systems or networks at the direction of users; and (4) information location tools.” Ellison, 357 F.3d at 1076-77. Finding that Veoh is a Service Provider under the DMCA, the Court had little trouble in finding that it qualified for the Safe Harbors. IO admitted that Veoh “(a) has adopted and informed account holders of its repeat infringer policy and (b) accommodates, and does not interfere with, “standard technical measures” used to protect copyrighted works”, but took issue with the manner in which Veoh implemented its repeat infringer policy.

Veoh clearly established that it had a functioning DMCA Notice & Takedown system:

  • Veoh has identified its designated Copyright Agent to receive notification of claimed violations and included information about how and where to send notices of claimed infringement.
  • Veoh often responds to infringement notices the same day they are received.
  • When Veoh receives notice of infringement, after a first warning, the account is terminated and all content provided by that user disabled.
  • Veoh terminates access to other identical infringing files and permanently blocks them from being uploaded again.
  • Veoh has terminated over 1,000 users for copyright infringement.

The Court held that Veoh did not have a duty to investigate whether terminated users were re-appearing under pseudonyms, but that as long as it continued to effectively address alleged infringements, it continued to qualify for the DMCA Safe Harbors; moreover, it did not have to track users’ IP addresses to readily identify possibly fraudulent new user accounts.

The Court further noted that: “In essence, a service provider [Veoh] is eligible for safe harbor under section 512(c) if it (1) does not know of infringement; or (2) acts expeditiously to remove or disable access to the material when it (a) has actual knowledge, (b) is aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent, or (c) has received DMCA-compliant notice; and (3) either does not have the right and ability to control the infringing activity, or – if it does – that it does not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity.”

The Court found that (1) there was no question that Veoh did not know of the alleged infringement — since IO did not file a DMCA Notice (2) it acted expeditiously to remove user-posted infringing content, (3) it did not have actual knowledge of infringement, (4) it was not aware of infringing activity, and (5) it did not have the right and ability to control the infringing activity (the Court did not address any financial benefit).

In sum: the Court “[did] not find that the DMCA was intended to have Veoh shoulder the entire burden of policing third-party copyrights on its website (at the cost of losing its business if it cannot). Rather, the issue [was] whether Veoh [took] appropriate steps to deal with [alleged] copyright infringement.”

There is much speculation as to how, if at all, this case will affect the Viacom / YouTube case. YouTube praised the decision, Viacom noted the differences. Each case turns on its own facts, but to the extent there are similarities, this decision is wind in YouTube’s sails.

Case is: IO Group Inc.(Plaintiff), v. Veoh Networks, Inc. (Defendant)

Slamming Wikipedia’s reliability not enough in immigration case

Badasa v. Mukasey, — F.3d —, 2008 WL 3981817 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2008)

Illegal alien Badasa sought asylum in the United States. To establish her identity, she submitted to the Immigration Judge a “laissez-passer” issued by the Ethiopian government. Opposing the application for asylum, the Department of Homeland Security submitted a number of items, including a Wikipedia article, to show that a laissez-passer is merely a document issued for a one-time purpose based on information provided by the applicant. The Immigration Judge was not convinced that the laissez-passer established Badasa’s identity, and denied the application for asylum.

Badasa appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which agreed that asylum should be denied. It soundly criticized Wikipedia’s reliability to establish the meaning of the document at issue, but found there was enough other evidence to support the Immigration Judge’s conclusion that Badasa had failed to establish her identity. But the Board of Immigration Appeals failed to discuss this other evidence, therefore running afoul of the administrative law textbook case of SEC v. Chenery, 318 U.S. 80 (1943).

So the Eighth Circuit sent the case back to the Board of Immigration Appeals to make additional findings. The court observed that the Board of Immigration Appeals found that “Badasa was not prejudiced by the [Immigration Judge’s] reliance on Wikipedia, but [the Board of Immigration Appeals] made no independent determination that Badasa failed to establish her identity.” In short, the Board of Immigration Appeals had focused only on why the use of Wikipedia made the case less “solid,” and did not address the lack of solidity found in any of the other evidence connected with the laissez-passer used to establish identity.

Negligence claim allowed in laptop theft case

Ruiz v. Gap, Inc., 540 F.Supp.2d 1121 (N.D. Cal. March 24, 2008)

In 2006, Ruiz applied for a job at the Gap and was required to provide his Social Security number. A vendor hired by the Gap for recruiting stored Ruiz’s information on a laptop which, as luck would have it, was stolen.

Though he was not (at least yet) the victim of identity theft, Ruiz sued the Gap for negligence. The Gap moved for judgment on the pleadings which the court also treated as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court denied the motion to dismiss as to negligence (and granted the motion as to claims for bailment, unfair competition and violation of the California constitutional right to privacy). But Ruiz’s standing to bring the claim was tenuous.

The Gap had argued that Ruiz lacked standing. His only alleged harm was that he was at an increased risk for identity theft. The court’s analysis of the Gap’s objection to standing focused on the first element of the Lujan test (Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992)), namely, whether Ruiz’s alleged injury was “concrete and particularized.”

The Ninth Circuit has held for allegations of future harm to confer standing, the threat must be credible, and the plaintiff must show that there is a “significant possibility” that future harm will ensue. The Lujan case (which is the leading Supreme Court authority on standing) essentially creates a “benefit of the doubt” for plaintiffs at the pleading stage — a court is to presume that general allegations embrace those specific allegations that are necessary to show a particularized injury. Ruiz’s general allegations of the threat of future harm were thus sufficient to confer standing.

But the court gave a warning to Ruiz that the threshold of standing does not apply only to pleadings, but is an indispensable part of a plaintiff’s case throughout. In other words, he’ll have to come up with more later to keep the case in court.

So in denying the motion to dismiss the negligence claim, the court incorporated its standing analysis. The only issue on the point of negligence was whether Ruiz had suffered an injury. Ruiz’s general allegations were sufficient.