Web developer gave implied copyright license to clients; court awards summary judgment to defendants in infringement action

In the case of Attig v. DRG, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has held that former clients of a web developer had an implied, nonexclusive copyright license to copy and move to different servers two websites that plaintiff web developer created and hosted for them.

Late in 1999, plaintiff Attig, a website developer, entered into an agreement with defendants to update and host two of defendants’ websites. One of the individual defendants had created the original versions of these sites using a template. Attig agreed to give the sites a “facelift,” add some basic information, and arrange for hosting. Defendants paid each invoice in full for web development services that Attig sent them.

In 2003, the defendants hired a new technology consultant to assist them with their web development matters. During this process, the defendants switched to a different hosting provider. Attig filed suit, claiming that he owned the copyright in the websites, and alleged that the defendants infringed his copyright by moving the sites to a different web server. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the defendants’ motion.

Defendants presented several arguments in favor of their motion for summary judgment. Among those arguments was that Attig, in creating and delivering the websites to defendants, granted them an irrevocable, nonexclusive implied license. The court agreed with this argument. The defendants’ conduct in copying the sites do a different server did not exceed this implied license, thus they could not be liable for copyright infringement.

The court noted that “a nonexclusive license arises where the creator of a work, at the defendant’s request, hands it over, intending that the defendant copy and distribute it.” This analysis (according to the Ninth Circuit decision in Effects Associates v. Cohen, 908 F.2d 555 which was relied upon by the court) requires a determination of whether (1) the licensee requests the creation of a work, (2) the licensor makes that particular work and delivers it to the licensee, and (3) the licensor intends that the licensee copy and distribute the work.

The court easily found that the first two prongs of the analysis were met. The third prong required more discussion, but ultimately the court found that Attig had intended that the defendants copy and use the websites. To make this determination, the court looked for guidance in the Southern District of New York case of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, L.P. v. Vyne Communications, Inc., 2000 WL 502860. Of particular importance in that case was the common sense determination that a customer would not be willing to pay good and valuable consideration for a site that it could not use. In this case, Attig had placed a copyright notice on one of the sites he updated, attributing ownership to the one of the defendants. He also sent correspondence referring to the sites as belonging to defendants. The court found these facts to reveal Attig’s intent regarding ownership.

Attig v. DRG, Inc., 2005 WL 730681 (E.D.Penn., March 30, 2005).

Website not entitled to court finding that future uses of Eminem songs would be fair use

Shady Records, Inc. (“Shady”), filed suit against Source Enterprises, Inc. (“Source”) and others for copyright infringement arising from Source’s publication on its website of various songs by Marshall Mathers III (widely a/k/a “Eminem”). After a long process of litigation leading up to trial, Shady moved to voluntarily dismiss its claims of copyright infringement. Accordingly, the court dismissed the action with prejudice.

While most defendants would be fully satisfied by the plaintiff voluntarily withdrawing its claims and the court dismissing the action with prejudice, Source wanted some extra conditions imposed on the dismissal. One of the requested conditions was for the court to memorialize a finding that Source’s past use of the Eminem songs on its website was fair use. Furthermore, Source asked the court to determine that any future use of the Eminem songs would also constitute fair use.

The court declined to add these extra conditions to the dismissal order. It noted that Source “misconceive[d] the consequences of a successful result in this case.” Questions of fair use are highly fact-intensive, and the court held that “it would, indeed, be highly inappropriate . . to issue an advisory opinion about any particular hypothetical use of the material in the future. . . .” The dismissal with prejudice means that Shady is not entitled to any relief based on Source’s past actions. “That is the totality of the adjudication that defendants are entitled to, and that is what they will receive by the [dismissal of the action].”

Shady Records, Inc. v. Source Enterprises, Inc., 2005 WL 696795 (S.D.N.Y., March 23, 2005).

Court rejects request for permission to serve process by e-mail

In the case of Ehrenfeld v. Bin Mufouz, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has refused Ehrenfeld’s request to allow service of process on Bin Mufouz, a Saudi Arabian national, by e-mail. Although service of process by e-mail is permissible in certain circumstances, Ehrenfeld failed to show that in this case correspondence by e-mail would be reasonably calculated to notify Bin Mufouz of the action.

Ehrenfeld wrote a book about the evils of funding terrorism. Bin Mufouz, a resident of Saudi Arabia, took offense to statements Ehrenfeld made about him in the book and filed a defamation lawsuit in the U.K. Ehrenfeld never appeared in that action, and Bin Mufouz threatened to enforce a default judgment against Ehrenfeld.

In response to those threats, Ehrenfeld filed this suit in federal court in New York, seeking a declaratory judgment that Bin Mufouz could not enforce the U.K. default judgment against her. Being unable to obtain service of the complaint and summons, Ehrenfeld filed a motion for leave to obtain service by alternate means pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f)(3). Rule 4(f) provides for service on foreign individuals, and Rule 4(f)(3) specifically allows service by “means not prohibited by international agreement as may be directed by the court.”

The court noted that there is no international agreement addressing service of process on persons in Saudi Arabia. Thus, service could be made in any manner the court would approve. Ehrenfeld proposed various ways in which service might be made, including via e-mail to an address found on Bin Mufouz’s website.

The court refused to allow service of process by e-mail. It noted that “although courts have upheld service via e-mail, those cases involved e-mail addresses undisputedly connected to the defendants and that the defendants used for business purposes.” In this case, Ehrenfeld had not persuaded the court that Bin Mufouz maintains the website on which the e-mail address was found, that he checks that e-mail account, or that he would be likely to receive information transmitted to that e-mail address. The court found that the e-mail address was used only as an informal means of accepting requests for information rather than for receiving important business communications.

Ehrenfeld v. Bin Mufouz, 2005 WL 696769 (S.D.N.Y., March 23, 2005).

InternetCases.com Podcast — April 1, 2005

This week’s podcast discusses the Kentucky Court of Appeals case of Ross-Carter v. Commonwealth.

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New York tax ruling could discourage telecommuting

The Court of Appeals of New York has held that a computer programmer who was an employee of a New York company and worked from his home in Tennessee 75% of the time was delinquent in paying his New York state income tax by allocating only 25% of his income in calculating the amounts due. The court upheld the constitutionality of the “convenience of the employer” test, which provides that when a nonresident is employed by a New York employer, income derived from work in another state is taxable by New York unless performed out of state for the necessity of the employer.

Huckaby v. New York State Div. of Tax Appeals, 2005 WL 705977 (Ct.App. N.Y. March 29, 2005).

Change in mail delivery policy moots prisoner’s First Amendment complaint

In the case of West v. Frank, decided on March 25, 2005 by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, the court dismissed a prisoner’s complaint that a prison policy prohibiting mail delivery of information printed from the Internet was unconstitutional. The court held that the issue became moot after the policy was amended to allow delivery of such materials.

Plaintiff, an inmate in a Wisconsin prison, suffered from liver disease and desired information about the liver transplant process. After he was unable to acquire such information from the prison’s medical staff, plaintiff asked family members to send him information through the mail. On three occasions, family members printed out information from medical websites and sent them through the mail to the plaintiff. Prison officials did not deliver the materials to the plaintiff, however, citing the prison’s policy which prohibited inmates from receiving printed Internet materials.

Plaintiff brought a civil rights action against various prison officials alleging that the policy violated his First Amendment rights. At the summary judgment stage, the matter was dismissed. The court found that the prison’s change in policy to allow inmates to receive printed materials on the Internet made the First Amendment question moot. The parties to the action no longer had “an interest in the outcome that the law recognize[d] as actionable.” Further, it was “absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior [of the prison] could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

West v. Frank, 2005 WL 701703 (W.D. Wis., March 25, 2005).

California Court of Appeal: “Dumb Ass” is not a defamatory term

[Thanks to Denise at Bag and Baggage for alerting me to this entertaining and humorous case.]

It’s not too often that the courts get to pass judgment on the really important issues of our time. But in its March 24 decision in the case of Vogel v. Felice, the California Court of Appeal has determined that calling someone a “dumb ass” does not give rise to liability for defamation. “A statement that [a person] is a ‘Dumb Ass,’ even first among ‘Dumb Asses,’ communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation.”

Of course there was a bit more at issue in this case. The plaintiffs were two candidates for public office who filed a libel suit against the defendant website operator. On his site, the defendant had listed the “Top Ten Dumb Asses,” and the plaintiffs occupied the top two slots on this list. The defendant accused one of the plaintiffs of being a “dead beat dad,” while accusing the other plaintiff of being “Bankrupt, Drunk & Chewin’ tobaccy.” Various links associated with plaintiffs led to certain unsavory websites.

The defendant filed a special motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute (Cal. Civ. Proc. Sec. 425.16) which entitles such motion in any cause of action “arising from any act of [the defendant] in furtherance of [his or her] right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue … unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.” The trial court denied the motion to strike, but the Court of Appeal reversed.

The court broke the analysis down to three questions: (1) Did plaintiffs’ cause of action arise from conduct in furtherance of the defendant’s petition or speech rights? (2) Was defendant’s conduct connected with a public issue? and (3) Had the plaintiffs established a probability of success on their claims? The court easily determined that the first two questions were to be answered in the affirmative. Most of the analysis focused on the third question. The court determined that the plaintiffs had not established a probability of success on their claims.

In finding that plaintiffs had not established a probability of success, the court noted that the complaint was legally insufficient on its face, because plaintiffs had failed to plead that defendant acted with “actual malice.” Furthermore, the complaint and the record was factually insufficient to support a probability of success for various reasons.

First, as discussed above, the claim that being called a “dumb ass” was defamatory failed as a matter of law for the inability of such a statement to be proved or disproved. Secondly, because the plaintiffs were public figures, they had the burden of proving the challenged statements were false. The court found that plaintiffs had not provided enough detail to show the “substantial falsity” of the claims. Finally, the court held that linking to various sites in connection with the plaintiffs’ names was not defamatory in that the association created thereby did not convey a substantially false meaning.

Vogel v. Felice, 2005 WL 675837 (Cal. Ct. App., March 24, 2005).

Internet research by juror no basis for mistrial in Kentucky court

Juror’s research into definitions of culpable mental states did not affect criminal defendant’s substantial rights.

Appellant Ross-Carter was convicted of child abuse and sentenced to six years in prison. She appealed her conviction on several grounds, one of them being that the trial court should have granted her a mistrial after one of the jurors conducted independent legal research on the Internet.

One evening while the trial was in recess, the juror looked up the definitions of culpable mental states on the Internet on her home computer and printed them. Upon learning of this, the judge interviewed the juror and determined that the juror had not shared this information with any of the other jurors. Furthermore, the definitions she had printed out were “precisely” the same as those in the jury instructions. Ross-Carter’s counsel moved for a mistrial, but the motion was denied.

On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the motion for mistrial. The appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a mistrial, which is an “extreme remedy” and that there was no manifest necessity requiring it in this situation. Considering the record as a whole it did not appear that either the outcome of the trial or the defendant’s substantial rights were affected, and therefore the motion was properly denied.

Ross-Carter v. Commonwealth, (Not Reported in S.W.3d), 2005 WL 678539 (Ky.App., March 25, 2005.