Tag Archives: Copyright

Plaintiff had no duty to “scour” the internet for infringements – statute of limitations did not bar copyright claim made 7 years after infringement

Plaintiff freelance photojournalist sued defendant website publisher for copyright infringement over photos plaintiff took of a luxury maximum security prison in Norway in 2010. Defendants posted the photos on its website in 2011 without permission, in connection with a widely-publicized story of a notorious mass shooter being relocated there. Plaintiff registered the copyright in his photos in 2015 and filed suit in 2018, claiming that he did not learn of the alleged infringement until 2016.

Each party filed motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff claimed that the court should enter summary judgment in his favor because he had a valid copyright to the photographs, and there was no dispute that defendant published several of them without authorization. Defendant asserted that plaintiff’s claims were time-barred by the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations, because he knew, or should have known, of the infringement when interest in the photos spiked following the remand of the alleged mass murderer to the prison where the photos were taken.

Photos included in copyright registration

The court found there was no genuine issue as to any material fact concerning plaintiff’s ownership of the copyright in the photos. And defendant conceded it published the photos without authorization. Defendant had challenged whether plaintiff’s copyright registration covered the photos at issue. Plaintiff had not introduced the deposit materials, but had submitted a sworn statement saying the photos had been included in the registration. The court found the sworn statement to carry the issue – had the defendant filed a motion to compel or sought the deposit materials from the copyright office, it may have been able to show the photos were not included. But on these facts, it was clear to the court that the copyright registration covered the photos.

Statute of limitations – no duty to scour

The court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the copyright infringement claims were not barred by the statute of limitations. Civil actions for copyright infringement must be “commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). The Second Circuit has stated that the “discovery rule” governs when the statute of limitations begins to run: an infringement claim does not ‘accrue’ until the copyright holder discovers, or with due diligence should have discovered, the infringement.

The court found that plaintiff’s knowledge about general interest in the prison following the news stories about the mass shooter being relocated there was not sufficient to constitute constructive discovery that his photographs of that prison were being infringed. Plaintiff did not have knowledge of any infringement of his work and there was no reason for him to think, or duty for him to scour the internet to find out if, anyone was using his photographs without his consent. The court cited Wu v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015 WL 5254885 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2015) to observe that “[i]f that were the expectation, then stock photo agencies and photographers likely would spend more money monitoring their licenses than they receive from issuing licenses.”

Masi v. Moguldom Media Group, 2019 WL 3287819 (S.D.N.Y., July 22, 2019)

Photographer’s copyright claim against officer of company over photos on website moves forward

Plaintiff, a professional photographer, sued defendant company and an individual who was its “registered agent and … officer, director, manager, and/or other genre of principal” for copyright infringement over two photographs that appeared on the defendant company’s website. The infringement claims against the individual defendant included one for vicarious infringement.

The individual defendant moved to dismiss the vicarious infringement claim. The court denied the motion.

One “infringes vicariously by profiting from direct infringement while declining to exercise a right to stop or limit it.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 930 (2005). “In order to establish vicarious liability, a copyright owner must demonstrate that the entity to be held so liable: (1) possessed the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity; and (2) possessed an obvious and direct financial interest in the exploited copyrighted materials.” Nelson-Salabes, Inc. v. Morningside Dev., LLC, 284 F.3d 505, 513 (4th Cir. 2002).

In this case, plaintiff alleged that the individual defendant controlled nearly all decisions of the company and was the dominant influence in the company. In addition, plaintiff alleged that the individual defendant “had the right and ability to supervise and/or control the infringing conduct of the company, and/or stop the infringements once they began.” Finally, plaintiff alleged that the individual defendant had an obvious and direct financial interest in the infringing activities of the company since he was an officer, director, manager or other principal of/for the company. As a principal of the company, the individual defendant’s financial interests were intertwined with the company’s. Therefore, the individual defendant had a direct and obvious financial interest in the company.

So the court concluded that plaintiff had presented sufficient facts with regard to each element of the vicarious liability claim.

Oppenheimer v. Morgan, 2019 WL 2617080 (W.D.N.C., June 26, 2019)

Affirmative defense asserting that Copyright Act is unconstituational survives motion to strike

Plaintiff sued defendant search engine for copyright infringement alleging that defendant wrongfully reposted a picture plaintiff had taken. Defendant’s answer included a number of affirmative defenses. Plaintiff moved to strike the affirmative defenses. The court struck some of them but allowed at least a couple of them to survive.

Unclean hands – Defendant apparently perceived some trollish behavior on the part of the plaintiff. Defendant alleged that, in light of plaintiff’s practice of taking photographs of no actual value, for which there is no market, and seeding them on the internet for the purpose of attempting to extort revenue through litigation, that the claims for equitable relief should be barred by unclean hands. Plaintiff objected, claiming that it was scandalous to characterize plaintiff’s enforcement efforts this way. The court found, though, that the defense was adequately pled and not scandalous. “While the … defense is unfavorable to Plaintiff, it does not ‘cast a cruelly derogatory light on’ Plaintiff as necessary for the Court to conclude that the defense is scandalous.”

Unconstitutionality of portions of Copyright Act – Defendant also asserted that 17 U.S.C. §§ 102 and 410, statues dealing with copyright protections, are unconstitutional as applied to pictures based on technological advancements in photography. Plaintiff responded by pointing out that the Supreme Court since 1884 has found copyright protection for photographs to be constitutional, and argued that defendant presented no cognizable legal argument to suggest that Congress exceeded its constitutional powers by enacting the Copyright Act. Perhaps surprisingly, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument. It noted that the defense was not insufficient, redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous, but that defendant was arguing that the law, or at least the application of the law, should be changed, and defendant presented grounds for its argument.

Miller v. 4Internet, LLC, 2019 WL 1937567 (D.Nev. April 30, 2019)

Fact that others had access to defendant’s wi-fi was no reason to quash subpoena in copyright case

In a suit against John Doe defendant for copyright infringement arising from defendant’s alleged distribution of plaintiff’s movies via BitTorrent, plaintiff sent a subpoena to Comcast – defendant’s ISP – seeking defendant’s identify.

Defendant moved to quash the subpoena, contending that being the target of the civil action was an undue burden, because there was a substantial likelihood that plaintiff would be unable to establish that defendant was actually the person responsible for the alleged infringement. Defendant also included a letter from his neighbor describing how that neighbor and others had used defendant’s wireless network.

The court denied the motion to quash. It held that even though defendant may turn out to be innocent, at this stage plaintiff was merely seeking to uncover his identity. The fact that other people had access to defendant’s unsecured wi-fi was immaterial. 

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, 2019 WL 1865919 (N.D.Cal. April 25, 2019)

Company cannot avoid DMCA liability for false CMI by claiming it used its own name

Plaintiff sued defendant claiming defendant violated the DMCA by providing and distributing false copyright management information (“CMI”), in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1202(a)(1)–(2). Defendant had placed its brand name and logo on and adjacent to plaintiff’s photo within defendant’s advertising material. 

The part the DMCA relevant to this case provides that “[n]o person shall knowingly and with the intent to induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal infringement — (1) provide copyright management information that is false, or (2) distribute or import for distribution copyright management information that is false.”

Section 1202(c) defines CMI as “any of the following information conveyed in connection with copies or phonorecords of a work or performances or displays of a work, including in digital form, except that such term does not include any personally identifying information about a user of a work or of a copy, phonorecord, performance, or display of a work: …” (emphasis added). It goes on to list eight types of CMI, as relevant in this case: (2) the name of, and other identifying information about, the author of the work; (3) the name of, and other identifying information about, the copyright owner of the work, including the information set forth in a notice of copyright; and (7) identifying numbers or symbols referring to such information or links to such information.

Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the plain language of § 1202(c) excepts from the definition of CMI “any personally identifying information about a user of a work or of a copy, phonorecord, performance, or display of a work.” It reasoned that because plaintiff’s complaint defined defendant as a “user” of the photograph (i.e., by alleging that defendant used the photograph for commercial promotion) and because personally identifiable information includes names, the name of a user of a work is not, and cannot, be CMI.

The court rejected this argument and denied the motion to dismiss. It looked to the decision of another federal court, Tiermy v. Moschino S.P.A., No. 15-CV-5900, 2016 WL 4942033 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2016) in which a defendant had made a similar argument. As that court noted, defendant’s argument fell short on a logical basis. Taking defendant’s theory to the extreme, virtually any person who took another’s work and placed their name or brand on it could be considered a “user of a work” rather than an infringer, and escape liability. The court found that was not the intent of the statute, which is to protect the integrity of CMI by prohibiting the provision of false CMI. The court held that it cannot be, and defendant provided no authority in support, that an alleged infringer can escape liability under § 1202(a) simply because the false CMI put forth is the alleged infringer’s own name.

Roth v. The Walsh Co., 2019 WL 318404 (E.D. Wis. Jan. 24, 2019)

Willie Nelson meme on Facebook was not clearly fair use

Plaintiff photographer sued website publisher (who also maintained a Facebook page to go with the website) for copyright infringement. Plaintiff claimed defendant infringed plaintiff’s copyright in a photo plaintiff took of Willie Nelson when defendant posted the photo on Facebook with a cultural message superimposed over the photo in the form of a meme.

Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, on the basis of fair use. The court denied the motion, applying the fair use test set forth in 17 USC 109.

The court’s holding turned essentially on the idea that there were not yet enough facts in the record to support a finding of fair use, and that such a determination should be made later in the case, e.g., at summary judgment. For example, plaintiff had argued that defendant’s purpose was not transformative, and that it was in fact the same purpose plaintiff had for publishing the photo, namely, to identify Willie Nelson.

Philpot v. Alternet Media, Inc., 2018 WL 6267876 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 30, 2018)

Bittorrent copyright plaintiff got much gentler treatment in New York federal court

Less than a week after a federal judge in Washington D.C. lambasted serial copyright plaintiff Strike 3 Holdings, calling it a “troll” and characterizing its tactics as “smacking of extortion,” another federal judge – this time in New York – gave Strike 3 much gentler treatment, finding that “there is no evidence to support Defendant’s conclusory claims that Plaintiff is engaging in copyright troll litigation tactics in the instant lawsuit”.

In the case of Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, — F.Supp.3d —, 2018 WL 6166873 (W.D.N.Y, Nov. 26, 2018), the court denied the John Doe defendant’s motion to quash a subpoena sent to Doe’s ISP seeking to discover his identity so that plaintiff could serve him with the complaint.

The court did, however, include a nod to Doe’s privacy interests in ordering that he be permitted to proceed anonymously in the lawsuit. It modified the protective order to provide that the defendant not be referred to using his initials, but instead as “John Doe subscriber assigned IP address 69.204.6.161” in any public filings.

Strike 3 Holdings, LLC v. Doe, — F.Supp.3d —, 2018 WL 6166873 (W.D.N.Y, Nov. 26, 2018)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping clients in matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases dot com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases

Video game elements did not infringe copyright

Plaintiff sued defendant claiming that certain visual elements of defendant’s digital video slot machine game infringed the copyright in elements of plaintiff’s game. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the copyright infringement claims. The court granted the motion.

It held that no reasonable factfinder could find the images in defendant’s games to be substantially similar to the protectible expression in plaintiff’s copyrighted material.

It found that the games were similar only at the conceptual level. Both games had 3 rows and 5 columns of spinning squares, and both included among the spinning squares images that corresponded to high-value playing cards (A, K, Q, J, and 10). But those were common elements in slot machine games. The court found they would likely qualify as scènes à faire and, one way or the other, were not protectible elements.

And both games used images of cats. That, however, according to the court, was where the similarities ended. In the court’s view, the cats in defendant’s game looked nothing like those in plaintiff’s images. Plaintiff’s cats were shown as full bodies, in active or playful poses. Some were partly outside the square frame. They moved when they were part of a winning combination. Perhaps most importantly, the court found, they were somewhat cartoon-like, and they had outsized eyes.

Defendant’s cats, by contrast, were shown in headshots only on the main game screens (with the exception of some bonus images), and they were fully contained within the square frame. The cats were dour and serious and were not engaged in any apparent activity, and they were more realistic images of cats. And there were other equally significant differences between the two sets of images.

GC2 Inc. v. International Game Technology, 2018 WL 5921315 (N.D.Ill. November 12, 2018)

Court labels copyright plaintiff as a troll and shuts down efforts to ID anonymous infringer

When a copyright plaintiff does not know who a particular alleged infringer is, it must first send a subpoena to the ISP assigned the IP address used to commit the alleged infringement. But the rules of procedure do not allow the sending of subpoenas until after the 26(f) conference – a meeting between the plaintiff and defendant (or their lawyers) to discuss the case. A plaintiff cannot have a 26(f) conference if the defendant has not been served with the complaint, and the complaint cannot be served unless the defendant’s identity is known.

So you can see the conundrum. To break out of this not-knowing, plaintiffs in situations like this will ask the court’s help through a motion for leave to take early discovery. That way the plaintiff can learn who the defendant is, serve the complaint, and move the case forward.

In the recent case of Strike 3 Holdings v. Doe, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put a stop to the efforts of a plaintiff that it called a copyright troll right to its face (or at least right in the text of the opinion). The court denied Strike 3’s motion for leave to take early discovery to learn the identity of an unknown BitTorrent user accused of downloading pornography.

The court held that the plaintiff’s request was not specific enough, and the privacy interests of the unknown defendant, together with the social harm of being wrongfully accused of obtaining “particularly prurient pornography” were not outweighed by the trollish plaintiff’s need for the information.

Key to the court’s ruling was the idea that a subpoena in circumstances like this must be able to actually identify a defendant who could be sued. The court noted, however, that

Strike 3 could not withstand a 12(b)(6) motion in this case without resorting to far more intensive discovery machinations sufficiently establishing defendant did the infringing—examining physical evidence (at least the computers, smartphones, and tablets of anyone in the owner’s house, as well as any neighbor or houseguest who shared the Internet), and perhaps even interrogatories, document requests, or depositions. Strike 3’s requested subpoena thus will not—and may never—identify a defendant who could be sued.

The opinion is an entertaining read and conveys the judge’s clear frustration with copyright troll plaintiffs. Below are some of the more memorable quips.

Regarding the flaws of using IP addresses to identify people:

[Plaintiff’s] method [of identifying infringers] is famously flawed: virtual private networks and onion routing spoof IP addresses (for good and ill); routers and other devices are unsecured; malware cracks passwords and opens backdoors; multiple people (family, roommates, guests, neighbors, etc.) share the same IP address; a geolocation service might randomly assign addresses to some general location if it cannot more specifically identify another.

Regarding the public shame of being accused of infringing porn:

… But in many cases, the method is enough to force the Internet service provider (ISP) to unmask the IP address’s subscriber. And once the ISP outs the subscriber, permitting them to be served as the defendant, any future Google search of their name will turn-up associations with the websites Vixen, Blacked, Tushy, and Blacked Raw. The first two are awkward enough, but the latter two cater to even more singular tastes.

How trolls are quick to flee:

Indeed, the copyright troll’s success rate comes not from the Copyright Act, but from the law of large numbers. … These serial litigants drop cases at the first sign of resistance, preying on low-hanging fruit and staying one step ahead of any coordinated defense. They don’t seem to care about whether defendant actually did the infringing, or about developing the law. If a Billy Goat Gruff moves to confront a copyright troll in court, the troll cuts and runs back under its bridge. Perhaps the trolls fear a court disrupting their rinse-wash-and-repeat approach: file a deluge of complaints; ask the court to compel disclosure of the account holders; settle as many claims as possible; abandon the rest.

It’s pretty much extortion:

Armed with hundreds of cut-and-pasted complaints and boilerplate discovery motions, Strike 3 floods this courthouse (and others around the country) with lawsuits smacking of extortion. It treats this Court not as a citadel of justice, but as an ATM. Its feigned desire for legal process masks what it really seeks: for the Court to oversee a high-tech shakedown. This Court declines.

The court’s decision to deny discovery is anything but the rubber stamp approach so many judges in these kinds of cases over the past several years have been accused of employing.

Strike 3 Holdings v. Doe, 2018 WL 6027046 (D.D.C. November 16, 2018)

Web scraping case fails under Dastar

Plaintiff sued defendant claiming that defendant wrongfully scraped sales listings from plaintiff’s website and copied those listings on defendant’s own website. It brought the following claims:

  • Violation of the Copyright Act’s prohibitions against distributing false copyright management information (“CMI”) (17 U.S.C. §1202(a)), and removing or altering CMI (Id., §1202(b)); and
  • Violation of the Lanham Act for reverse passing off and false endorsement.

Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court granted the motion.

CMI claim

The court dismissed the claim asserting distribution of false CMI because plaintiff alleged that the false CMI was a blanket copyright notice found on defendant’s website’s terms of use, and not on the pages where the copied content was displayed.

It also dismissed plaintiff’s claim for removal of CMI because it found that the allegations concerning the CMI allegedly removed – a copyright notice found at the bottom of the pages of plaintiff’s website – covered the pages of the website itself, not the particular listings that were allegedly copied without the CMI. It held that:

To violate the DMCA, the false CMI must be “conveyed in connection” with the work. General copyright notices are not “conveyed” with the work, and thus do not violate the DMCA. [See GC2 Inc. v. Int’l Game Tech. PLC, 255 F. Supp. 3d 812, 821 (N.D. Ill. 2017)] (“Courts, however, have generally required more than a boilerplate terms of use notice near a copyrighted work in order to find a party liable for distributing false CMI”); Pers. Keepsakes, Inc. v. Personalizationmall.com, Inc., 2012 WL 414803, at *7 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 8, 2012) (“[A]s a matter of law, if a general copyright notice appears on an entirely different webpage than the work at issue, then that CMI is not ‘conveyed’ with the work and no claim will lie under the DMCA.”)

Lanham Act claim

On the Lanham Act claim, the court found that plaintiff failed to allege that it had a protectible mark that was being used in a manner that was likely to cause confusion among consumers.

The court also applied the 2003 Supreme Court case of Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 539 U.S. 23 (2003) to find that plaintiff’s Lanham Act claim failed. In Dastar, the Supreme Court concluded that “false designation of origin” as it is used in the Lanham Act attaches to the producer of tangible goods that are offered for sale, and not to the author of any idea, concept, or communication embodied in those goods. In this case, the defendant created the final product (website listings), albeit using the plaintiff’s content (just like in Dastar). Because plaintiff was not the source of the product (the duplicated listings), it did not have a claim under the Lanham Act.

Alan Ross Machinery Corp. v. Machinio Corporation, 2018 WL 6018603 (N.D.Ill. November 16, 2018)