No copyright protection for two word phrase

quipIn a final pretrial order, plaintiff stated that “to this day [defendant] persists in using [plaintiff's] copyrighted ‘usurpassed performance’ language on its packages.” Defendant filed a motion in limine (a motion to exclude evidence) to preclude plaintiff from introducing evidence or putting on testimony that would infer or suggest the phrase “unsurpassed performance” has been registered as a copyright.

The court granted the motion.

Under the Copyright Act, “[w]ords and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans” are not subject to copyright. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(a). The court looked to a number of cases in which short phrases had been denied copyright protection. For example, other courts had held that “Where Words Come Alive,” “Earth Protector,” “Chipper,” and “Retail Plus” were not copyrightable material.

One wonders whether plaintiff was really trying to assert some form of unfair competition or trademark infringement. The notion is worth entertaining for but a brief moment, till one realizes that laudatory phrases such as “unsurpassed performance” find no protection under trademark law either.

Predator International, Inc. v. Gamo Outdoor USA, Inc., 2014 WL 321069 (D.Colo. January 29, 2014)

No copyright liability against founder of competing company for overseeing development of infringing website

oversightAfter defendant left plaintiff’s employment to co-found a competing company, plaintiff sued defendant personally for copyright infringement based on the new company’s website’s resemblance to plaintiff’s website. The infringement theory was interesting – plaintiff alleged that defendant did not commit the infringement himself, but that he was secondarily liable for playing a significant role in the direct infringement by the new company’s employees.

Defendant moved to dismiss the copyright infringement claim. The court granted the motion.

There are two types of secondary copyright infringement liability: contributory liability and vicarious liability. A defendant is a contributory infringer if it (1) has knowledge of a third party’s infringing activity, and (2) induces, causes, or materially contributes to the infringing conduct. See Perfect 10, Inc. v. Visa Int’l Service Ass’n, 494 F.3d 788, 795 (9th Cir.2007) (quoting Ellison v. Robertson, 357 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir.2004)). In the context of copyright law, vicarious liability extends beyond an employer/employee relationship to cases in which a defendant has the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity and also has a direct financial interest in such activities. A & M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., 239 F.3d 1004, 1022 (9th Cir.2011) (quoting Fonovisa, Inc. v. Cherry Auction, Inc., 76 F.3d 259, 262 (9th Cir.1996)).

In this case, the court held that plaintiff had not alleged enough detail to state a claim of secondary liability against defendant. Instead, the complaint simply recited the elements of contributory and vicarious liability. Specifically, plaintiffs failed to allege:

  • That defendant was uniquely in possession of the original material on plaintiff’s website, but rather plaintiffs alleged that the material was publically available on the website for anyone to read and copy.
  • How defendant, as a non-employee (but founder) of the new company, was personally responsible for the content of the new company’s website. (Interestingly, the court held it was not sufficient to allege that defendant was a founder of the new company. Although plaintiffs alleged some factual details about what was actually copied from plaintiff’s website, they alleged no factual details as to defendant’s personal involvement in the infringement.)
  • Facts that suggested that defendant induced the new company to infringe plaintiff’s website.
  • Facts that suggested that defendant had the right to control and supervise the new company’s employees who were involved in the alleged infringement.

Plaintiff’s attempts to impose secondary liability were (if they had worked) a clever method for accomplishing the same objective as piercing the corporate veil. Granular control by the individual founder could be equated with the “alter ego” aspect of the veil-piercing analysis. The absence of such specific control by the individual defendant, however, left the possibility of liability only with the company.

BioD, LLC v. Amnio Technology, LLC, 2014 WL 268644 (D.Ariz. January 24, 2014)

Does publication on the web give rise to “access” in copyright infringement analysis?

2003lookbackPlaintiff sued defendant for copyright infringement. Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings (which is essentially the same thing as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim except it is after defendant files an answer). Defendant asserted that plaintiff had not pled copyright infringement because under the Seventh Circuit’s “substantial similarity” test to demonstrate infringement, plaintiff had not pled defendant had “access” to the allegedly infringed work.

The court rejected defendant’s argument and denied the motion for judgment on the pleadings on this issue.

In some copyright infringement cases, a plaintiff may not have direct evidence that the defendant committed infringement. In those situations, a finder of fact may infer that infringement has occurred when it is shown that:

  • the defendant had access to the copyrighted work; and
  • the accused work is substantially similar to the copyrighted work.

In this case, defendant argued it never had access to plaintiff’s designs that it was alleged to have infringed. But the court considered the online publication, 11 years ago, of plaintiff’s designs, to find access for purposes of the motion for judgment on the pleadings:

With regard to online publication, in 2003, [plaintiff] first published the [allegedly infringed work] at [its website]. The Internet already was widely used and accessible at that time. Because the non-movant is entitled to reasonable favorable inferences in evaluating a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the online publication is enough to establish access for purposes of denying [defendant's] motion for judgment on the pleadings.

The court’s decision provides no meaningful analysis as to why publication on the web gives rise to access. It states the finding above in such a conclusory manner as if to indicate it sets forth some per se rule. But one is left to wonder whether other factual nuance would change the answer to the inquiry: What if publication were in 1993 rather than 2003, at a time when many, many fewer people were on the web? What if the publication were behind a paywall for which defendant had no authorization to pass? What if defendant pled it did not utilize the web for this sort of information, or, even more compellingly, not at all?

Skyline Design, Inc. v. McGrory Glass, Inc., 2014 WL 258564 (N.D.Ill. January 23, 2014)

Using new employer’s credentials to copy former employer’s technology did not violate Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

This case arose from some rather complex but interesting facts:

8e19fbd8a556c7b63610c1cfd7782f10Defendant resigned from his job with an IT consulting firm. One of the firm’s customers hired defendant as an employee. Before the customer/new employer terminated the agreement with the IT consulting firm/former employer, defendant used the customer/new employer’s credentials to access and copy some scripts from the system. (Having the new employee and the scripts eliminated the need to have the consulting firm retained.) The firm/former employer sued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Defendants (the customer and its new employee) moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion.

It held that the complaint failed to allege “unauthorized access” within the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the CFAA.

The court looked to the Ninth Circuit’s holding in LVRC Holdings LLC v. Brekka, 581 F.3d 1127 (9th Cir. 2009), which provides that to access a protected computer “without authorization” is to do so “without any permission at all,” and that to “exceed authorized access” is to “access information on the computer that the person is not entitled to access.” And it looked to the more recent case of U.S. v. Nosal, 676 F.3d 854, 863 (9th Cir. 2012), which teaches that an individual does not “exceed authorized access” simply by misusing information that he or she was entitled to view for some other purpose. Under Nosal, the CFAA regulates access to data, not its use by those entitled to access it.

In this case, the court found that the complaint did not allege that defendants were unauthorized to access the scripts in question. In fact, the Statement of Work that the court reviewed specifically granted defendant’s employer and its representatives (including defendant) “sudo access” to “non-shell root commands” that included the scripts at issue.

Plaintiff argued that the access was unauthorized because it had repeatedly refused to grant defendant or his employer the authority to write or edit those scripts. But the court found that argument to address the misuse of the scripts, not unauthorized access. Under Nosal this conduct did not run afoul of the CFAA. So because the complaint failed to allege that defendant and his new employer had no access rights to the scripts, and because the documents upon which plaintiff relied revealed that defendants had certain access rights, the court dismissed the CFAA claim.

Enki Corporation v. Freedman, 2014 WL 261798 (N.D.Cal. January 23, 2014)

Can a website be liable for linking to infringing content?

Gawker facing Grokster-like challenge in suit by Quentin Tarantino over leaked script.

gawksterThe Hollywood Reporter has covered Quentin Tarantino’s copyright infringement lawsuit against Gawker for publishing links to leaked copies of the script of a yet-to-be-made Tarantino film. The complaint alleges that certain anonymous defendants are directly liable for infringement for uploading the script, and that Gawker is secondarily liable for the infringement.

Going after Gawker that way makes sense, because the site cannot be directly liable for infringement if it did not exploit any of Tarantino’s exclusive rights under Section 106 of the Copyright Act, viz.: the right to copy, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, or make a derivative work.

None of those rights are implicated by simply publishing a link. So if Gawker is shown to be liable for copyright infringement, it will have to be derived from the direct infringement of the parties who uploaded the content, and/or the infringement occasioned by Gawker users who download the script.

These facts call for an analysis under the Supreme Court’s 2005 Grokster decision, which held that:

[O]ne who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.

The Grokster analysis gets some color in the Ninth Circuit (Tarantino’s suit is pending in federal court in California) in the 2013 case of Columbia Pictures v. Fung (the Isohunt case). In that case, the appellate court held that Isohunt was secondarily liable for the infringement occasioned by its users under the Grokster analysis. Like Gawker, Isohunt’s conduct did not implicate any of the plaintiffs’ Section 106 rights. Instead, its liability was premised on the conduct it undertook to direct users to the acquisition of infringing content.

Gawker is of course no stranger to controversy. Just last week we covered a Florida case dealing with Gawker’s First Amendment rights to publish excerpts of the Hulk Hogan sex tape. This bold move of publishing provocatively certainly continues that trend. But this time that move could face some serious Grokster-like consequences.

Judge who sent Facebook friend request to wife in pending divorce proceeding should have been disqualified

facebook-friend-request-446x298While a divorce case was pending, the judge overseeing the case sent the wife a Facebook friend request. The wife did not accept the request. Thereafter, the judge entered a final judgment that was more favorable to the husband. After the wife found out about other cases in which the judge had reached out to litigants through social media, she filed a motion to disqualify the judge. The judge refused to disqualify herself.

The wife sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded, holding that the judge should have disqualified herself:

The “friend” request placed the litigant between the proverbial rock and a hard place: either engage in improper ex parte communications with the judge presiding over the case or risk offending the judge by not accepting the “friend” request.

Moreover, the court found the problem of friending a party in a pending case “of far more concern” than a judge’s Facebook friendship with a lawyer. Forbidding judges and counsel to be Facebook friends, especially in smaller counties with tight-knit legal communities, would be unworkable. But with a friend request from the judge, a party has a “well founded fear” of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.

Chace v. Loisel, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 258620 (Fla.App. 5 Dist. January 24, 2014)

Hunter Moore arrest reveals a certain schizophrenia about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The feds arrested Hunter Moore and an alleged co-conspirator on Thursday for hacking into email accounts to get nude photos Moore published on isanyoneup.com. At the heart of the prosecution is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal statute that makes it a crime (and in some circumstances, gives rise to civil liability) for accessing a computer without authorization.

Few will come to these guys’ defense in this situation. Moore’s conduct in publishing and promoting isanyoneup.com was reprobate, and if the allegations in this criminal action prove true, that backend nefariousness will simply multiply the reasons why Moore was known as the most hated man on the internet. And because of this disdain for Moore’s conduct, most of us are happy to see the CFAA used aggressively against him.

But that’s the same statute many blame for crushing Aaron Swartz. To the extent a reasonable person may feel ill-will against Hunter Moore, he or she may feel sympathy, indeed compassion, for Aaron Swartz having had the CFAA book thrown at him. Against Moore there’s a sense of justice, against Swartz, a palpable injustice.

Isn’t it a bit mysterious how the same conduct — granted, for way different purposes and under different circumstances — can elicit such contrasting emotions?

“Right to audit” provisions in technology services agreements can benefit both parties

“Right to audit” provisions in technology services agreements are common. You’ve seen them. A typical section will read something like this:

Vendor will keep accurate and complete records and accounts pertaining to the performance of the Services. Upon no less than seven (7) days’ written notice, and no more than once per calendar year, Customer may audit, or nominate a reputable accounting firm to audit, Vendor’s records relating to its performance under this Agreement, including amounts claimed, during the term of the Agreement and for a period of three months thereafter.

Clearly these provisions generally benefit the customer, to give it some transparency and assurance that the vendor is performing the services according to the agreement and that vendor is charging customer for the services appropriately.

But a right to audit provision can benefit the vendor (and go against the customer) as well. As a recent court decision shows (Carlson, Inc. v. IBM, 2013 WL 6007508 (D. Minn. November 13, 2013)), a customer’s comprehensive audit rights can preclude it from claiming that vendor owes it a fiduciary duty.

In the case, the customer sued its software vendor alleging, among other things, that the vendor breached its fiduciary duty. The customer argued that it had to essentially “hand over the keys” of its operations to the vendor. But the court ruled that vendor did not owe customer a fiduciary duty because the customer had several important rights to know about and control the vendor’s performance.

The master services agreement between the parties reserved for the customer the right to audit the vendor’s performance and challenge its pricing and delivery of services. Under the agreement, customer had:

  • regular and recurring access to vendor personnel;
  • access to complete records and supporting documentation underlying vendor’s services;
  • the right to conduct operational audits to examine vendor’s performance of the services;
  • the right to audit performance for comparison to standards in the service level agreement;
  • the right to financial audits to verify the accuracy and completeness of invoiced charges.

The court found that “[t]hese audit and oversight provisions [were] meaningless if [customer] was as helpless as it [claimed].”

So while vendors may find right to audit clauses to be a nuisance, they should remember that the presence of such a clause could provide an important defense in litigation over the technology agreement.

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses negotiate and draft technology services and development contracts. He also handles many other issues involving the internet, copyright and trademarks, and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com.

Hulk Hogan sex tape redux: Another court holds Gawker had First Amendment right to publish video excerpts

As we discussed here on internetcases back in November 2012, someone surreptitiously filmed Hulk Hogan engaged in sex acts with someone other than his wife. When Gawker posted an article and video excerpts about that, Hulk sued in federal court for invasion of privacy. The federal court denied the preliminary injunction, holding that to bar Gawker from publishing the information would be an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

hulk_hogan_tapeA few weeks after the federal court denied his motion for preliminary injunction, Hulk voluntarily dismissed the federal case and filed a new case in state court. Unlike the federal court, the state court granted a preliminary injunction against Gawker publishing the information and the video excerpts. Gawker sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s order granting the preliminary injunction.

The state appellate court’s decision closely tracked the federal court’s reasoning from 2012. The court observed that where matters of purely private significance are at issue, First Amendment protections are often less rigorous. But speech on matters of public concern is “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.”

The court found that the sex tape excerpts and information that Gawker published were matters of public concern. Much of this was from Hulk’s own doing — he injected himself into the public spotlight not only as a professional wrestler, but also through books detailing his sexual indiscretions, radio interviews, and other public pronouncements about his “conquests.”

In arguing that Gawker’s speech was not of public concern, Hulk looked to Michaels v. Internet Entertainment Group, Inc., 5 F.Supp.2d 823 (C.D.Cal.1998), a case that dealt with the infamous sex tape that Bret Michaels and Pamela Anderson made. In that case, the court found defendant’s redistribution of the video was not protected by the First Amendment, in part because the distribution was purely commercial. The court didn’t buy it.

But wasn’t Gawker’s use commercial as well? The court drew a distinction:

We are aware that Gawker Media is likely to profit indirectly from publishing the report with video excerpts to the extent that it increases traffic to Gawker Media’s website. However, this is distinguishable from selling the [Hulk] Sex Tape purely for commercial purposes.

So the court found that despite his brawn, Hulk failed to carry his “heavy burden” of overcoming the presumption that a preliminary injunction would violate the First Amendment in this situation.

Gawker Media, LLC v. Bollea, 2014 WL 185217 (Fla.App. 2 Dist., January 17, 2014)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses and individuals identify and manage issues dealing with technology development, copyright, trademarks, software licensing and many other matters involving the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com.