Court reconsiders “making available” in file-sharing case

A U.S. District Court judge in Minnesota presiding over the case of Capitol Records Inc. v. Jammie Thomas has issued an Order breathing new life into the Defendant’s case.

Thomas was found liable for copyright infringement for activities over the KaZaA network, and had moved for either a new trial or lowering of damages on the ground that the amount of the jury award ($220,000 for 24 songs at $9,250 each) was excessive and a violation of due process. The Court’s Order however, stated that it was “contemplating granting a new trial for a different reason”, because Jury Instruction No. 15 which stated that that “[t]he act of making copyrighted sound recordings available for electronic distribution on a peer‐to‐peer network, without license from the copyright owners, violates the copyright owners’ exclusive right of distribution, regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown” was contrary to prevailing case law. Specifically, the Court noted that binding Eighth Circuit precedent from National Car Rental System, Inc. v. Computer Associates Int’l, Inc., required that “[i]nfringement of [the distribution right] requires an actual dissemination of either copies or phonorecords…”

The order notes that this precedent appears to require “actual dissemination” but that neither party brought this to the Court’s attention. The Order goes on to state that “at least one authority relied upon by Plaintiffs…Atlantic Recording Corp. v. Howell [blogged here], has since been vacated, and, on reconsideration, that court has now held that making sound recordings available for distribution is not actionable under the Copyright Act and that ‘actual distribution’ is required.” The Court invited amicus briefs on the issue, and will hear arguments in the case on July 1, 2008.

Case is: Civil File No. 06‐1497 (MJD/RLE)

Distribution under the Copyright Act requires more than merely making copies available

Atlantic Records v. Howell, No. 06-2076 (D. Az. April 29, 2008)

Several record companies, including Atlantic Records, sued Pamela and Jeffrey Howell after the record companies learned, through their private investigator, that the Howells used KaZaA to share files. After discovery in the matter closed, the record companies moved for summary judgment, asserting that the Howells infringed the copyright in the sound recordings merely by making them available for the public to copy. The court found in favor of the Howells and denied the motion.

The Copyright Act provides that an owner of a copyright enjoys certain exclusive rights in connection with the work including, among other things, the exclusive right to distribute copies of the work. The record companies case was a bit problematic on this point, as the only evidence of record was that the allegedly infringed files were in KaZaA’s shared folder. There was no indication that actual copies of the files had been transferred.

In support of the argument that making the sound recordings available was an unauthorized distribution, the record companies relied heavily on Hotaling v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 188 F.3d 199 (4th Cir. 1997). In Hotaling, the court held that a library which created a number of unauthorized copies of a work and made those copies available in its various branches could be liable for infringement, despite the absence of evidence that any member of the public had viewed the unauthorized copies.

The Hotaling decision was based largely on policy grounds. The library kept no records of who had viewed the unauthorized copies, thus the plaintiff could not provide direct evidence that the works were distributed to the public. The court opined it would be against sound policy for defendants to avoid liability through the omission of record keeping.

The court in this case rejected and criticized the Hotaling decision, holding that evidence of making a copy available “only shows that [a] defendant attempted to distribute the copy, and there is no basis for attempt liability in the statute, no matter how desirable such liability may be as a matter of policy.”

The recording companies argued that although the term “distribution” is not explicitly defined in the Copyright Act, it is synonymous with the term “publication,” which the statute defines to include “[t]he offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. In other words, if the Howells offered to distribute the copyrighted works to the public for purposes of further distribution, they distributed the works within the meaning of the Copyright Act.

But the court looked to the plain meaning of statutory provision granting an exclusive right to distribute, which requires an identifiable copy of the work to change hands in one of a number of prescribed ways (e.g., sale or lease) for there to be a distribution. The court found it untenable that the definition of a different word in a different section of the statute was meant to expand the meaning of “distribution” and liability to include offers to distribute.

A guide to registering the copyright in your blog

The required procedures for registering claims of copyright in the United States Copyright Office don’t match up well with the practicalities of modern web publishing. It would be almost a full time job to file new copyright applications each time a blog is updated, let alone prohibitively expensive. And what on earth forms are you supposed to fill out? How do you send in a copy of your blog to claim copyright registration in it?

Sarah Bird, Esquire over at SEOmoz.org has written an excellent little article titled Copyright: Sample Forms and Strategies for Registering your Online Content which helps cut through the confusion and anachronisms you’ll face when sending materials to the Copyright Office. She’s a terrific writer (I wish I could write so clearly), and does a great job outlining a subject that is needlessly confounding.

The vexing linkage between access and protection in DMCA anticircumvention analysis

A couple of days ago David Donoghue wrote about the recent case of Nordstrom Consulting, Inc. v. M&S Technologies, Inc., No. 06-3234, 2008 WL 623660 (N.D. Ill. March 4, 2008). Dave’s post gives a very thorough treatment of all aspects of the case, which involve primarily allegations of infringement of the copyright in software.

The case also involved a claim of circumvention under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. 1201(a). The court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion on this claim.

The dispute arose from a rather typical set of facts. The parties had collaborated on the development of some software. Along the way the principal author of the software became dissatisfied and parted ways. Litigation ensued over the parties’ ownership and use of the source code.

Before plaintiff Nordstrom officially severed ties, he went on vacation. While he was gone, one of the defendant’s employees (Butler) sent Nordstrom an email saying that Butler needed access to the source code which was stored on a computer there in the office, in order to help out a customer. Nordstrom didn’t respond for several days, and in the meantime, Butler disabled the BIOS password for the computer.

Nordstrom sued under Section 1201 over this disabling of the password. The court relied heavily on the Federal Circuit’s decision in Chamberlain Group, Inc. v. Skylink Technologies, Inc., 381 F.3d 1178 (Fed. Cir. 2004) to conclude that there was no violation of Section 1201’s anticircumvention provisions.

The Chamberlain case draws a necessary connection between circumvention and infringement. And the presence of this connection is the vexing part of the analysis. A quick reading of Section 1201 does not reveal the link.

But the Chamberlain court held that Section 1201’s prohibition on circumvention does not give rise to a new property interest, only a new cause of action, one that goes after circumvention of methods controlling access to protected works. One can’t pursue a defendant just for circumvention in a vacuum, so to speak. The circumvention has to bear some “reasonable relationship to the protections that the Copyright Act otherwise affords copyright owners.” Chamberlain, 381 F.3d at 1202. In other words, without infringement or the facilitation of infringement arising from the cirumvention, a cause of action under 1201 does not arise. The linkage is one between access and protection.

The holding of the Nordstrom case as to the DMCA claim picks up on this link between access and protection. Summary judgment on the circumvention claim was proper because the plaintiff could not show that Butler’s disabling of the BIOS password protection on the computer storing the source code enabled any infringement. The evidence before the court was that Butler accessed the code to fix a problem on behalf of an authorized licensee of the software. Because of the license, there could be no infringement. Without any connection to infringement, under the teaching of Chamberlain, a cause of action for circumvention could not be sustained.

“Copyright misuse” not an independent cause of action

Ticketmaster L.L.C. v. RMG Technologies, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —-, 2008 WL 649788 (C. D. Cal. March 10, 2008)

Last October I wrote about a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in the case of Ticketmaster L.L.C. v. RMG Technologies, Inc. You may recall that the court granted an injunction against RMG’s automated software that accessed Ticketmaster’s Web site, allegedly in violation of the DMCA anticircumvention provisions (17 U.S.C. §1201 et seq.) as well as the site’s terms of use. Because of such ruthless behavior on the part of RMG, some parents were evidently denied the chance to purchase Hannah Montana tickets for their daughters. (How can we be concerned about the economy or the war on terror when things like that are going on?)

RMG didn’t give up after last October’s injunction against it, but went on the offensive, filing a counterclaim against Ticketmaster alleging, among other things, copyright misuse. In general, the doctrine of copyright misuse prevents copyright holders from leveraging their limited monopoly to allow them control of areas outside that monopoly. Trying to extract a licensing fee for the use of a work in the public domain would be a clear example of copyright misuse.

The problem for RMG was that copyright misuse is a defense to an infringement action, not a cause of action in itself. And the court recognized that, citing to a number of cases, including:

  • Altera Corp. v. Clear Logic, Inc., 424 F.3d 1079, 1090 (9th Cir.2005) (affirming district court’s refusal to “extend [ ] the doctrine of copyright misuse beyond ‘its logical place as a defense to a claim of copyright infringement’ ”)
  • Practice Mgmt. Info. Corp. v. American Medical Ass’n, 121 F.3d 516, 520 (9th Cir.1997) (adopting rule that “misuse is a defense to copyright infringement”)
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 269 F.Supp.2d 1213, 1225 (C.D.Cal.2003) (noting that, as even defendant conceded, “copyright misuse cannot found a claim for damages”)

Accordingly, the court granted Ticketmaster’s motion to dismiss the claim for copyright misuse. Leaving no uncertainty, the court continued by observing that because “this holding is not based on the way in which this claim was pled, but on the fact that no such claim can ever be pled, the dismissal of this claim is WITH PREJUDICE, as no possible amendment could save it.”

How’s that for black letter law?

New guide to open source issues

[Update: Thanks, Dad, for alerting me to the typo. It’s a relief to know I’ll always have at least one reader!] 

The Software Freedom Law Center, one of the leading influencers in the free and open source software movement, has released what appears to be a helpful guide on understanding the legal issues associated with the use and development of open source software. As anyone involved with open source (whether on the legal side or the technical side) knows, these kinds of issues are erudite at best, and incomprehensible at worst. Having a comprehensive review in one place provides a helpful tool. Thanks to my friend Alex Newson for pointing out this publication.

Anonymous alleged infringer identified with little substantive inquiry into infringement claim

[In re Subpoena Issued Pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyrigt Act to: 43SB.com, No. 07- 6236, 2007 WL 4335441 (D. Idaho, December 7, 2007).]

When the general counsel for Melaleuca, Inc. saw some negative content someone had posted about the company on the Web site 43rdstateblues.com, he sent a cease and desist letter demanding the content be removed. The letter, however, did not accomplish its intended purpose. Instead, the site owner posted the entire letter.

Melaleuca did not give up, but just adapted its strategy. It served a DMCA subpoena [see 17 U.S.C. §512(h)] on the site, seeking to identify the person who posted the letter “so that [Melaleuca] might seek redress for copyright infringement.” Melaleuca claimed that its copyright rights in the letter were infringed when it was posted online. (Claiming copyright in cease and desist letters is not a new tactic.  See, e.g., here and here.) 

The website moved to quash the subpoena, asserting, among other things, that the letter was not subject to copyright protection, and that the failure by Melaleuca to establish a prima facie case of copyright ownership was fatal to the subpoena.

The court denied the motion to quash. The Web site had argued that Melaleuca could not own a copyright in the letter, according to 17 U.S.C. 102(b)’s exclusion of “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery” form copyright protection. But the court rejected that argument.

Declining to “go into an in-depth analysis of the merits of a copyright infringement claim in determining whether to quash [the] subpoena,” the court found that Melaleuca’s copyright registration in the letter was sufficient to establish ownership of a valid copyright.  As for alleged copying, the court found that posting of the entire letter was sufficient.

There are a couple of interesting observations to be made from this decision.  First, unlike cases in which plaintiffs seek to uncover the identity of anonymous defendants accused of defamation [see here], this court gave – relatively speaking – little inquiry into the merits of the plaintiff’s case.  Perhaps it felt that such an analysis was not necessary given that the Copyright Office had already determined copyrightable subject matter to exist (when it issued the registration certificate).

A second interesting question arises when one considers how the court might have ruled had the defendant asserted fair use as a basis for the motion to quash. (Doesn’t it seem like posting a cease and desist letter on the Internet, ostensibly for eliciting public ridicule, is a transformative use?) Given the fact intensive inquiry of a fair use analysis, the court would have probably reached the same conclusion, if anything to put off the factfinding until later.  But would a court do that in other cases where the offending, anonymous use is more obviously fair?     

Court flushes septic company’s request for injunction in copyright suit

Biosafe-One, Inc. v. Hawks, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2007 WL 4212411 (S.D.N.Y. November 29, 2007)

Back in 2005, industrial-strength septic system cleaning products company Bio-Safe One, Inc., needed a “jumbo mortgage,” so its president, one Jorgensen, did a web search for brokers and located Messrs. Hawks and Skierkowski, who helped Bio-Safe One with its mortgage needs. Although that transaction was over in June 2005, Jorgensen believed that Hawks and Skierkowski used information he had provided them during the mortgage transaction to start up a competing septic business.

Jorgensen and Bio-Safe One filed a lawsuit against Hawks and Skierkowski in New York federal court alleging, among other things, copyright infringement. They claimed that the competing enterprise illegally copied elements Bio-Safe One’s website.

The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Hawks and Skierkowski from continuing what they believed to be copyright infringement. The court denied the motion for preliminary injunction.

It held that although the plaintiffs had established ownership of the copyright in the Bio-Safe One website by presenting a registration certificate for it, they failed to show that the defendants had engaged in illegal copying of any original elements of the site.

Applying the “ordinary observer test,” the court held that a side-by-side comparison simply would not prompt a person to regard the aesthetic appeal of the websites as the same. Rather, it was difficult to detect any similarities. The arrangement, photographs, and graphics on the websites were “decidedly dissimilar.” And the textual elements that were similar on the websites, including minor phrasing and terminology, were so far spaced throughout that they were not noticeable.

Accordingly, the court held that the plaintiffs would not likely succeed on their claim of copyright infringement.

Booklocker.com on the copyright offensive in Maine

Booklocker.com, Inc. v. Sartain, No. 07-0176 (D. Me., Filed November 21, 2007). [Download the Complaint]

Online, on demand book publisher Booklocker.com has filed a declaratory judgment action against Utah-based artist Julie Sartain, in response to a cease and desist letter Sartain sent to Booklocker alleging copyright infringement.  In the case, Booklocker seeks a determination by the United States District Court for the District of Maine that Booklocker’s use of artwork on book covers does not infringe on any copyright right held by Sartain.

The allegations are a bit sparse, as one may expect to see in federal pleading, but it appears that Booklocker believes Sartain does not own the copyrights in the cover artwork, but that such artwork is owned by the authors who have Booklocker print their books on demand.  In the alternative, Booklocker asserts that it has some sort of implied license to reproduce the artwork through the course of dealing between the parties during the past four years.

In asserting that the individual authors — and not Sartain — own the copyrights in the individual pieces of cover art, Booklocker is putting a lot of faith in the process whereby the authors may have commissioned Sartain to create those works.  The complaint says that there are more than a thousand works at issue.  Are we to believe that there is a detailed, written agreement in place for each one of those works, in which Sartain assigned her copyright rights to these authors? 

Beaded jewelry website tussle turns into lawsuit alleging bogus DMCA takedown notice

Does a hosting provider breach the contract with its customer when it responds to a DMCA takedown notice concerning its customer’s content? The plaintiff in this case would have you believe that. [Download the Complaint]

Jades Creations, LLC v. White, No. 07-50225 (N.D. Ill., Filed November 16, 2007)

Rockford, Illinois-based Jades Creations, LLC has filed suit in federal court against its competitor in the beaded jewelry industry over what Jades claims were unmeritorious takedown notices sent to Earthlink under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Back in October, SW Creations sent a DMCA takedown notice to Earthlink, the host of Jades Creations’ Web site, claiming that material located thereupon infringed SW Creations’ copyright and trademark rights. (Never mind the DMCA does not apply to trademarks.) Jades, of course, disputed the fact that there was infringing content on its site, and successfully had access to its site restored after sending Earthlink a counternotification.

But Jades didn’t stop there. Obviously perturbed by what it believed to be an unwarranted takedown notice that caused it to lose business, it filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois, asking for a declaration of non-infringement and asserting various tort claims for the takedown notice.

One of the claims is for tortious interference with the contract between Jades and her hosting provider Earthlink. This is intriguing, but it looks like there could be a bit of a hurdle here.

Under Illinois law, a successful plaintiff in a tortious interference with contract action has to prove, among other things, that an actual breach of contract occurred because of the defendant’s conduct. Belden Corp. v. InterNorth, Inc., 413 N.E.2d 98 (Ill. App. 1st Dist. 1980). Did Earthlink breach the contract with its hosting customer when it obeyed the demands of a third party DMCA takedown notice?

Jades alleges that this was a breach (see paragraph 60 of the complaint). Do you agree?

Earthlink’s terms of service can be found here. And remember, 17 U.S.C. 512(g) provides that “a service provider shall not be liable to any person for any claim based on the service provider’s good faith disabling of access to, or removal of, material or activity claimed to be infringing or based on facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent, regardless of whether the material or activity is ultimately determined to be infringing.”

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