North Carolina supreme court reverses employee hard drive removal decision

Removal of hard drive and false claim of copyright ownership in company website and catalogs were misconduct sufficient to disqualify former employee from receiving unemployment benefits.

Binney v. Banner Therapy Products, Inc., — S.E.2d —-, 2008 WL 2370887 (N.C. June 12, 2008)

I covered this case back in 2006 after the appellate court’s decision. Now the state supreme court has reached a different conclusion.

Employee Binney was fired from her job because she claimed a copyright in the company’s website and catalogs (which she had helped create) and also because she took the hard drive of her work computer home with her over the weekend without asking. After she was terminated, she sought unemployment benefits. Her employer contested the claim.

Hard drive on a wooden table

The administrative body in charge of determining unemployment benefits found that Binney was terminated for employee misconduct and therefore not entitled to receive anything. Binney appealed that decision to a trial court, which affirmed the denial. She then appealed to the state appellate court, which reversed, and found that that given Binney’s position and responsibilities in the company and the reasonableness of her conclusions as to ownership of copyright, her actions did not rise to the level of misconduct that warranted a denial of benefits. [Internet Cases coverage of that decision.]

But the state supreme court reversed the appellate court, meaning that Binney is not entitled to benefits. The supreme court concluded that the appellate court incorrectly applied the standard of review, namely, whether the decision to deny benefits was based on “any competent evidence”.

As for the alleged misconduct of taking the hard drive home, the supreme court found that although the employer had no policy on removing hard drives, that did not contradict the administrative body’s finding that the employer did not authorize the hard drive’s removal. So there was competent evidence in the record that the removal was unauthorized, and corresponding misconduct in having removed it.

And as for claiming copyright in the website and materials, the supreme court similarly found that a determination of misconduct was supported by the record. Whether Binney believed in good faith that she had a personal copyright interest in the materials was irrelevant. She never asked for nor received permission to assert a personal claim on the company’s property by including the copyright statements, so in doing so, she engaged in misconduct.

Ben Stein’s “Expelled” film permitted to use clip from Lennon’s “Imagine”

Judge Stein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled last week that use of portions of the song “Imagine” in the film “EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed” were protected as fair use. Plaintiffs Yoko Ono and record label EMI sued Defendants (the producers of the film) for copyright infringement seeking an injunction to stop the use. After hearing oral arguments and viewing the movie, the Court found that the Plaintiffs failed to meet the burden of showing irreparable harm since “on the basis of the current record, defendants are likely to prevail on their affirmative defense of fair use.”

“Expelled”, a full-length movie on intelligent design narrated by Ben Stein uses a 15-second clip of the song with the words “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” transposed on the screen over black and white archive sequences (including a military march and a close up of Stalin). Immediately preceding the excerpt several speakers express the hope that science will diminish religion. In a voiceover, Stein notes the speaker “would like you to think he’s being original but he’s merely lifting a page out of John Lennon’s songbook.”

According the one producer, “the film undertakes to inspire viewers to participate in the scientific, political, cultural, and religious debates surrounding [intelligent design].” Defendants obtained permission to include every song in the movie except Imagine. Defendants timed the films release to coincide with state “Academic Freedom” bills (which permit teachers to criticize the theory of evolution.)

The Court first determined that Plaintiffs established a prima facie case of copyright infringement by showing (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) unauthorized copying. Accordingly, absent the injunction there is a presumption of irreparable harm. Turning next to Defendants defense of fair use, the Court held that (quoting Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 and U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8), that “some opportunity for fair use of copyrighted materials [is] necessary to fulfill copyright’s very purpose, ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts. . . ‘.”

Taking the fair use factors into consideration, the Court held that: (1) the use of Imagine is not merely exploitative, and since the movie stimulates debate, the commercial purpose of “Expelled” weighs weakly against fair use (Defendants’ use is transformative and for purposes of criticism and commentary, i.e., “what the filmmakers see as the naïveté of John Lennon’s views [in that] ‘Imagine’ is a secular anthem caught in a loop of history recycling the same arguments from years past through to the present,” thus “it is not necessary that defendants [transform] the music or lyrics of the song”, nor that Defendant’s could have made the film without the clip, moreover, the failure to seek permission did not weigh against fair use (2) the film comments on the song, and does not exploit its creative virtues, (3) “both quantitatively and qualitatively, the portion of ‘Imagine’ that defendants copy is reasonable in light of their purpose for doing so [, and thus] weighs in favor of fair use”, and (4) there is absolutely no evidence that the film’s use will usurp the market for “Imagine.”

Balancing the potential hardships to the parties if an injunction were issued, the evidence favored Defendants, especially since Plaintiffs were not likely to lose any licensing revenue. Unless Yoko and EMI expel this decision on appeal, they will not Win Ben Stein’s Money.

Case is: Lennon v. Premise Media, No. 08-3813

Resale on eBay o.k. under First Sale Doctrine?

Last week the U.S. District Court in Seattle denied Defendant Autodesk’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff Vernor’s case, and held that under the circumstances, the sale of AutoCAD on eBay was protected by the First Sale Doctrine.

Vernor makes a living reselling goods on eBay. He found himself in hot water after trying to sell four copies of Autodesk’s AutoCAD on eBay, and sought a declaratory judgment from the Court that he was entitled to sell these copies of AutoCAD.

In 2005, Vernor bought a copy of AutoCAD at a garage sale. He then listed it on an eBay auction. When Autodesk found out about Vernor’s eBay auction, it sent eBay a notice and takedown request alleging that copyright infringement would occur if Vernor were allowed to sell its product. Vernor filed a counter-notice claiming his proposed sale was lawful. eBay reinstated the auction, and the sale was completed. Fast forward to 2007 when Vernor bought four copies of AutoCAD for sale on eBay. He was able to sell three copies after going through similar notice and takedown / reply correspondence as in 2005. When he tried to sell the fourth copy, eBay suspended his account for one month for alleged “repeat infringement.” He sued for a declaration that his proposed sale was lawful, and that Autodesk’s actions were unfair competition.

Vernor acquired his copies of AutoCAD from CTA who had acquired them from Autodesk as part of a settlement. Each copy contained a Software License Agreement which contained a “nonexclusive, nontransferable license to use the enclosed program … [including prohibiting] transfer … to any other person without Autodesk’s prior written consent.”

Contrary to Autodesk’s assertion, the Court held that Vernor did make out a valid cause of action, and that there is an actual case / controversy between the parties per the Declaratory Judgment Act. Moreover, the Court also held that “If It Applies, the First Sale Doctrine Immunizes Mr. Vernor” since “[t]he first sale doctrine permits a person who owns a lawfully-made copy of a copyrighted work to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy.” The Court also cited with approval Quality King Distribs., Inc. v. L’Anza Research Int’l, Inc., 523 U.S. 135, 152 (1998) which noted that “[w]hen a copyright holder chooses to sell a copy of his work, however, he ‘exhaust[s] his exclusive statutory right to control its distribution’.” The Court noted by way of example that “the first sale doctrine permits a consumer who buys a lawfully made DVD …to resell the copy, but not to duplicate the copy.”

Autodesk claims (as would arguably all software companies) that since it licensed AutoCAD, there was no sale, and thus Vernor is not an “owner” and the First Sale Doctrine does not apply. The Court points out the key question: “whether Autodesk’s transfer of AutoCAD packages to CTA was a sale or a mere transfer of possession pursuant to a license.” If it was a sale, Autodesk would be limited to a breach of contract claim against CTA. The Court notes that there is no bright-line rule as to what constitutes a sale versus a transfer, but that “[i]n comparing the transactions found to be sales in Wise with those that were not, the critical factor is whether the transferee kept the copy acquired from the copyright holder.” (emphasis added). Thus in this case, since CTA, and subsequently Vernor kept the copies of AutoCAD, there was a sale. The Court noted in a footnote that: “[e]ven if Autodesk could revive its “exhausted” distribution rights by reclaiming title to software copies it sold, Autodesk did not reclaim title. It merely required CTA to destroy its copies.” This might mean that software vendors will amend license language to avoid this issue in the future, along with more aggressively policing possession of their software requiring licensees to return copies of software so as to avoid First Sale issues (or that they could provide limited-term renewable licenses which contain a DRM-type “auto-destroy” feature – similar to the way iTunes limits via license the number of machines its customers can upload a song to).

The Court does note a series of decisions which run counter to the reasoning in United States v. Wise, 550 F.2d 1180, 1187 (9th Cir. 1977), but ultimately follows Wise in finding that “the transfer of AutoCAD packages from Autodesk to CTA was a sale with contractual restrictions on use and transfer of the software. Mr. Vernor may thus invoke the first sale doctrine, and his resale of the AutoCAD packages is not a copyright violation.” The Court also notes that other jurisdictions may have reached a different conclusion. This case has important implications for consumers and the software industry, and given the noted Circuit split, might not ride off into the sunset just yet.

William Patry provides an informative commentary here.

Case is: CASE NO. C07-1189RAJ (U.S. Dist Court of Washington at Seattle)

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?     

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