Tag Archives: Copyright

Downloading a song is not a performance under the Copyright Act

“Performance” under Copyright Act requires “contemporaneous perceptibility”.

U.S. v. ASCAP, — F.3d —, No. 09-539 (2d Cir. September 28, 2010).

Yahoo and RealNetworks commenced a proceeding to determine the rate of a “blanket license” they would pay to ASCAP to perform musical works over the internet (e.g., through streaming services). (As an aside, such actions are brought in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York pursuant to an antitrust consent order entered way back in the 1940′s.)

ASCAP wanted as big a piece of the pie as possible and argued that it should be paid royalties for songs that are downloaded. Remember, ASCAP only collects fees for the public performance (not the distribution or copying) of musical works. So it asked the court to find that each time a user downloads a file, that should be treated as a performance, and thus ASCAP should be entitled to payment.

The district court disagreed that a download is a performance as defined by the Copyright Act. ASCAP sought review with the Second Circuit. On appeal the court affirmed, agreeing that a download is not a performance.

The analysis is straightforward: The Copyright Act grants copyright owners the right, among other things, to perform the copyrighted work publicly. Under the Copyright Act, to “‘perform’ a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process.” Since a download plainly is neither a “dance” nor an “act,” the court had to determine whether a download of a musical work fell within the meaning of the terms “recite,” “render,” or “play.”

The court looked to dictionary definitions of the terms “recite,” “render” and “play” to observe that all three actions entail contemporaneous perceptibility. It found that music is neither recited, rendered, nor played when a recording (electronic or otherwise) is simply delivered to a potential listener.

In more detail, the court said that:

[music downloads] are simply transfers of electronic files containing digital copies from an on-line server to a local hard drive. The downloaded songs are not performed in any perceptible manner during the transfers; the user must take some further action to play the songs after they are downloaded. Because the electronic download itself involves no recitation, rendering, or playing of the musical work encoded in the digital transmission, we hold that such a download is not a performance of that work, as defined by [the Copyright Act].

So ASCAP’s piece of the pie was not as big as it wanted.

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Ohio record pirating statute preempted by Copyright Act

State v. Boyd, 2010 WL 3565414 (Ohio App. 1 Dist. September 15, 2010)

Defendant was convicted under Ohio state criminal law for selling pirated DVD movies on a street corner. This apparently was the first ever prosecution under a law — a “record pirating statute” — enacted in 1976 (which was two years before the Copyright Act took effect). Defendant sought review of his conviction with the state appellate court. On appeal, the court reversed the conviction.

The court held that the state record pirating statute (R.C. 1333.52) was preempted by Section 301 of the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. 301).

It was not clear which subsection of the record pirating statute defendant had been accused of violating. The statute provides:

No person shall purposely do either of the following: (1) Transcribe, without the consent of the owner, any sounds recorded on a phonograph record, disc, wire, tape, film, or other article on which sounds are recorded, with intent to sell or use for profit through public performance any product derived from the transcription. . . .

and

No person shall purposely manufacture, sell, or distribute for profit any phonograph record, tape, or album of phonographic records or tapes unless the record and the outside cover, box, or jacket of the record, tape, or album clearly and conspicuously discloses the name and street address of the manufacturer of the record, tape, or album, and the name of the performer or group whose performance is recorded. . . .

The Copyright Act expressly preempts certain state-law actions. Section 301 states that all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights conferred by the Copyright Act and that come within the subject matter of copyright . . . are governed exclusively by the Copyright Act.

In this case, there was no dispute that the movies were within the subject matter of federal copyright law. The more detailed analysis came in examining the question of whether the work was governed exclusively by the Copyright Act. That inquiry looks to see whether there is a qualitatively different “extra element” in the state law claim beyond what is required to show copyright infringement.

The court looked to two similar Ohio cases in which defendants had engaged in similar conduct. In State v. Perry, the Ohio supreme court found that the statute supporting the prosecution for “unauthorized use of property” by uploading and downloading computer software to an internet bulletin board service was preempted. In State v. Moning, the court held that a computer crime statute that prohibited the unauthorized access to data in a database was not preempted. The unauthorized access provided the extra element in that case.

Court orders anonymous accused Bittorrent defendants to be identified

West Bay One v. Does 1 – 1,653, — F.Supp.2d. —, 2010 WL 3522265 (D.D.C. September 10, 2010)

Achte/Neunte Boll Kino Beteiligungs v. Does 1 – 4,577, — F.Supp.2d —, 2010 WL 3522256 (D.D.C. September 10, 2010)

In mass copyright infringement cases against alleged traders of copyrighted movies via Bittorrent, unknown defendants had no reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information held by internet service provider.

Several unknown “Doe” defendants who were sued for copyright infringement for trading movies via Bittorrent moved to quash the subpoenas that the plaintiff copyright owners served on the defendants’ internet service providers.

The subpoenas sought subscriber information such as the defendants’ names, addresses and MAC addresses, so that they could be named as defendants in the copyright litigation.

Defendants moved to quash the subpoenas, arguing that their subscriber information was private information that should not be disclosed pursuant to a Rule 45 subpoena. The court denied the motions and ordered the subscriber information produced.

The court held that the defendants did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information held by the internet service providers. It cited to a number of cases that supported this holding, each of which had found that a person loses his or her expectation of privacy in information when that information is disclosed to a third party. See Guest v. Leis (6th Cir.), U.S. v. Hambrick (4th Cir.), and U.S. v. Kennedy (D. Kan.).

In footnotes, the court also addressed the potential First Amendment rights that the defendants would have to engage in anonymous file sharing. It quickly dispensed with any notion that such activities were protected in this case, as the pleadings on file set forth a prima facie case of infringement. “[C]ourts have routinely held that a defendant’s First Amendment privacy interests are exceedingly small where the ‘speech’ is the alleged infringement of copyrights.”

Vernor v. Autodesk: does it matter in an age of cloud computing?

Today the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in the case of Vernor v. Autodesk [PDF], making an important ruling about copyright, software and the first sale doctrine. At a fundamental level, however, one could wonder whether the case is all that big a deal, since the first sale doctrine concerns rights that the owner of a physical copy of a work has. For software — especially these days when an increasing amount of software is either distributed over the internet or provided in the cloud — questions about the rights associated with physical copies are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

No doubt the distribution of physical copies of software is less important than it was in the past. But the Vernor case is worth looking at inasmuch as the ruling could translate into some potentially wacky arrangements depending on the desires of copyright owners and the accompanying restrictions they may put on the uses of their works. The holding of the case is not limited to software, but to any copyrighted work capable of being distributed in physical form. As Vernor’s attorney Greg Beck has written, “there is no obvious reason why other publishing industries couldn’t begin imposing the same terms. If they do, it may be the end of ownership of books and music.” (I’m proud to mention that Beck has been a guest blogger here at Internet Cases.)

What the case was about

Vernor bought several used copies of AutoCAD software from a customer of Autodesk, which is the software’s original distributor and copyright owner. Vernor then tried to sell those copies on eBay. Autodesk asserted that this sale of the copies violated Autodesk’s exclusive rights under the Copyright Act to distribute the software. So Vernor filed suit to ask the court to declare that such sales were not infringing. (Cases like these, where the accused goes on a preemptive offensive, are called declaratory judgment actions.)

The trial court found in Vernor’s favor. Autodesk sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court reversed, holding that Vernor could not rightly assert that his conduct was protected under copyright law’s first sale doctrine, and that Vernor’s customers’ installation of the software was not protected by the essential step defense.

These defenses failed because the court found that Vernor (and his customers) were merely licensees of the software, not owners.

The Software License Agreement

When Autodesk sold the software to CTA (the company from whom Vernor bought the discs before trying to sell them on eBay), it included a shrinkwrap license agreement, as well as a screen containing the same terms that appeared during the installation agreement.

The agreement provided, among other things, that the software was being provided under a limited license and that Autodesk retained ownership of the copyright in the software. It also placed onerous restrictions on the use and transfer of the software, e.g., the user could not rent, lease or transfer it to other users, or transfer it out of the Western Hemisphere, either physically or electronically.

The first sale doctrine

In general, the owner of a copyright in a work has the exclusive right to determine how copies of the work are distributed. The century-old first sale doctrine, however, is an exception to this general rule.

Under Section 109 of the Copyright Act (17 USC 109), the “owner of a particular copy” of a work may sell or dispose of his or her copy without the copyright owner’s authorization. Selling the copy of a painting you by at an art auction, for example, should not subject you to copyright infringement.

The essential step defense

The Copyright Act also provides that the owner of the copyright in a work has the exclusive right to make copies of the work. But there’s an exception to that exclusivity when it comes to software — the RAM copy made when the software is being used, according to Section 117 of the Copyright Act, cannot give rise to an infringement if that copying is being done by the “owner of a copy” of the software as an “essential step” in using the program.

The lower court’s decision

Vernor won at the lower court level because the court held that he was the “owner” of the copies of software he had bought, and therefore was protected by the first sale doctrine. His customers, also as owners, would be protected by the essential step defense.

Why these defenses failed

The court of appeals held otherwise, namely, that Vernor (as well as the company from whom he had bought the copies, and his customers) were merely licensees and not owners of the software. Only “owners” can claim protection under the first sale doctrine and the essential step defense.

The court looked to the circumstances surrounding the transfer of the software, and formulated the following test to determine that a software user is merely a licensee when the copyright owner: (1) specifies that the user is granted a license, (2) significantly restricts the user’s ability to transfer the software, and (3) imposes notable use restrictions.

In this case, all these criteria were met. Since neither Vernor nor the company he bought the software from were “owners,” these defenses were not available.

Room for criticism

The decision is subject to criticism in a number of ways. First, it might go against the sensibilities of many ordinary folks who think, quite naturally, that when you buy something (like a CD containing software), you own it. This case confirms that that is not always the case.

A second possible criticism is how the case makes possible some strange situations not involving software. What’s to stop hard copy book publishers from entering into shrinkwrap agreements with people who buy the books, purporting to retain ownership and calling the arrangement a license, while placing restrictions on use and transfer? Under the test in this case, it could be an infringement to lend or sell or otherwise distribute that book. Seems like a dangerous way to lock up information. But I guess it’s better than including curses as DRM.

Finally, the case lends itself to criticism in the way it gives great power to the software companies to really tie up tangible media to the detriment of consumers. Once an application has been sold once, where’s the harm to the software company if it’s transferred to someone else? The company has already been paid once, why must it insist on getting paid again? This grabbiness is really no surprise, though, especially when one sees that the likes of the Business Software Alliance joined as amici on the side of Autodesk.

In any event, tangible media for software is becoming a thing of the past. To the extent this case allows some negative consequences, the move to the cloud will mitigate that negativity.

Righthaven seeks domain name transfer – relief that is not called for under the Copyright Act

Tactics suggest overreaching on more than just copyright grounds.

News broke over the Labor Day weekend that Righthaven, that enterprise set up to file copyright lawsuits over alleged infringements of articles from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, sued Nevada senate candidate Sharron Angle. The complaint [PDF] contains two claims for copyright infringement over allegations that Angle posted two articles on her website without authorization.

Let’s set aside for a moment any objections or snickering we might have about Righthaven’s approach, or any disdain we may feel about spamigation in general. There’s one paragraph in the Angle complaint which demonstrates a plaintiff mindset that is over the top on just about any reasonable scale.

In addition to the ususal demands for copyright infringement relief in the complaint (e.g., statutory damages, costs, attorney’s fees, injunction, etc.), Righthaven asks that the court:

[d]irect the current domain name registrar, Namesecure, and any successor domain name registrar for the Domain to lock the Domain and transfer control of the Domain to Righthaven.

Say what?

This is a copyright lawsuit, not one for trademark infringement or cybersquatting. Nothing in the Copyright Act provides the transfer of a domain name as a remedy. Such an order would be tantamount to handing the whole website over to Righthaven just because there may have been a couple of infringing items.

The Copyright Act does provide for the impounding and disposition of infringing articles (See 17 USC 503). So it’s plausible that a court would award the deletion of the actual alleged infringing articles. Or if it wanted to be weirdly and anachronistically quaint about it, could order that the infringing files on the server be removed and somehow destroyed in a way additional to just being deleted. In any event, there’s no basis for a court to order the transfer of a domain name as a result of copyright infringement.

I’ll let you, the reader, decide what you will about Righthaven. But if you decide that their tactics are silly, and in some cases uncalled-for, you won’t be alone.

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New copyright lawsuits go after porn on Bittorrent

Three adult media entertainment producers filed suit yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging copyright infringement against hundreds of anonymous defendants accused of trading videos using Bittorrent. This kind of action resembles the much-criticized mass litigation undertaken by the U.S. Copyright Group against hordes of unknown accused Bittorrent users trading movies like Hurt Locker.

In this case, the subject matter promises to be more provocative. Plaintiff Millennium TGA is known for producing content in the “transsexual adult entertainment niche.” Plaintiff Lightspeed Media Corporation is alleging infringement of content including collections relating to its Jordan Capri and Tawnee Stone websites. Plaintiff Hard Drive Productions produces the Amateur Allure website.

Here are the complaints:

State law claims against Turnitin fail

Christen v. Iparadigms, LLC, No. 10-620, 2010 WL 3063137 (E.D.Va. Aug. 4, 2010)

Plaintiff was a graduate student and one of her professors uploaded a couple of plaintiff’s papers to the web-based plagiarism detection service Turnitin. You may remember how the Fourth Circuit held last year that this uploading and use of students’ papers is a protected fair use that would not subject Turnitin to liability for copyright infringement.

Perhaps recognizing the difficulties of a copyright case against Turnitin, plaintiff pursued various state-law, non-copyright claims based on Turnitin’s inclusion of plaintiff’s works in its database. So plaintiff sued for conversion, replevin and unjust enrichment.

The court dismissed all three of these claims, holding that they were preempted by the Copyright Act.

The Copyright Act specifically preempts all state-law rights that are equivalent to those protected under federal copyright law. Many courts apply a two-pronged test to determine if a particular state-law claim is preempted: (1) the work must be within the scope of the subject-matter of copyright, and (2) the rights granted under state law must be equivalent to any exclusive rights within the scope of federal copyright.

The court found that there was “no question” that the works at issue — plaintiff’s unpublished manuscripts — fell within the subject-matter of copyright protection.

It went on to find that plaintiff’s conversion claim was “simply a copyright infringement claim dressed in state-law clothing.” And the rights in the works that the plaintiff asserted — mainly, to use and reproduce the copyrighted work — were exclusive rights granted by the Copyright Act. The conversion claim also failed because plaintiff was not seeking the return or destruction of tangible property, just code stored on the Turnitin server.

The court dismissed the replevin claim on similar grounds. Because there was nothing tangible to be purged or returned, an action in replevin would not be viable. But even more importantly, replevin actions are no longer recognized under Virginia law, as the cause of action was repealed by statute.

Finally, the court held that plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim failed. Citing to Nimmer and a batch of cases holding unjust enrichment cases to be preempted by the Copyright Act, the court held that a state-law cause of action for unjust enrichment should be regarded as an “equivalent right” to rights granted under the Copyright Act.

New copyright lawsuit involves Creative Commons

GateHouse Media, Inc. v. That’s Great News, LLC, No. 10-50164 (N.D. Ill. filed 6/30/2010)

A lawsuit filed this past week in the Northern District of Illinois includes a claim that the defendant violated the terms of a Creative Commons license covering the plaintiff’s copyrighted works. GateHouse Media publishes a slew of local newspapers, including the Rockford Register Star in Rockford, Illinois. The Register Star provides premium online content to its subscribers, and makes that content available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.

GateHouse sued a company that sells reprints of articles — including articles from the Register Star — on fancy plaques to the people who are featured in those articles. Since GateHouse has its own reprint business, it views the defendant’s work as a competitive threat.

The complaint has all the claims you’d expect under these facts — copyright infringement, trademark infringement and various claims under Illinois unfair competition law. It also has a breach of contract claim, in which GateHouse invokes the terms of the Creative Commons license, going after the defendant’s commercial use of the licensed material.

Ponder if you will why GateHouse chose to pursue a violation of the Creative Commons license as a breach of contract claim and not as copyright infringement. The license terms are written as conditions and not covenants. So it seems like the defendant’s alleged use would be outside the scope of the license and therefore infringement. Any ideas why plaintiff is proceeding this way?

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YouTube victorious in copyright case brought by Viacom

District court grants summary judgment, finding YouTube protected by DMCA safe harbor.

Viacom v. YouTube, No. 07-2103, (S.D.N.Y. June 23, 2010)

The question of whether and to what extent a website operator should be liable for the copyright infringement occasioned by the content uploaded by the site’s users is one of the central problems of internet law. In talks I’ve given on this topic of “secondary liability,” I’ve often referred it simply as “the YouTube problem”: should YouTube be liable for the infringing content people upload, especially when it knows that there is infringing material.

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Today was a big day in the history of that problem. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of YouTube in the notorious billion dollar copyright lawsuit brought against YouTube by Viacom way back in 2007.

The court held that the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) (at 17 USC 512) protected YouTube from Viacom’s direct and secondary copyright claims.

Simply stated, the DMCA protects online service providers from liability for copyright infringement arising from content uploaded by end users if a number of conditions are met. Among those conditions are that the service provider “not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system or network is infringing,” or in the absence of such actual knowledge, “is not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent.”

The major issue in the case was whether YouTube met these conditions of “non-knowledge” (that’s my term, not the court’s) so that it could be in the DMCA safe harbor. Viacom argued that the infringement was so pervasive on YouTube that the site should have been aware of the infringement and thus not in the safe harbor. YouTube of course argued otherwise.

The court sided with YouTube :

Mere knowledge of prevalence of such activity in general is not enough. . . . To let knowledge of a generalized practice of infringement in the industry, or of a proclivity of users to post infringing materials, impose responsibility on service providers to discover which of their users’ postings infringe a copyright would contravene the structure and operation of the DMCA.

Given the magnitude of the case, there’s little doubt this isn’t the end of the story — we’ll almost certainly see the case appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Stay tuned.

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Court rejects RIAA’s arguments against 24 cent ringtone royalty rate

Recording Industry Ass’n of America, Inc. v. Librarian of Congress, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 2487842 (D.C. Cir. June 22, 2010)

Recorded music is usually subject to copyright protection in two ways — the musical composition (think sheet music and lyrics) is protected by one copyright, and the actual sound recording is protected by another copyright. In general, for someone other than the copyright owner to use a copyrighted work (e.g., to copy or distribute it), he or she must get a license from the copyright owner (setting aside exceptions such as fair use).

The compulsory license schema

But there’s a kind of zany exception to the general requirement of a negotiated license when it comes to reuse of a musical composition. Others seeking to make such further reuse can do so without obtaining an agreement with the owner of the copyright in the musical composition, provided that the reuser obtain and pay a fee for a “compulsory license.” The mechanics for such licensing system are set up in Section 115 of the Copyright Act (17 USC 115).

There is a Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) that the Library of Congress oversees. This three-member panel sets the fees due to copyright owners under the Section 115 compulsory license schema.

Ring-a-ling cha-ching

As you probably know, ringtones that sample popular songs are popular these days. (As a commuter on public transportation I can attest to what a scourge this is on our modern society.) Since they’re all the rage, they’re big business.

In 2009, after some complex hearings, the CRB set the rate for payment under a compulsory license at 24 cents per ringtone sold. The Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) had argued that its copyright owners were entitled to a percentage of total revenue, not a flat “penny-rate.” Unhappy with the CRB’s determination, it appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court affirmed the CRB’s penny-rate of 24 cents.

How the CRB was right

The CRB determined that a penny-rate was more in line with reimbursing copyright owners for the use of their works. In upholding the CRB’s determination on this point, the court observed that in other cases it had validated the CRB’s preference for a royalty system based on the number of copyrighted works sold — like the penny rate — as being more directly tied to the nature of the right being licensed than a percentage-of-revenue rate.

Moreover, the CRB had determined (and the court agreed) that a percentage revenue model did not make as much sense for the sale of individual copyrighted works as it would in the sale of media that is streamed or broadcast. Simply stated, it is relatively easy to measure how many copies of a ringtone are sold, and thus easy to calculate a penny-rate amount. But that is more difficult to accurately do in the case, for example, of satellite radio. Those difficulties were not present in this situation, and that militated against the adoption of a percentage rate.

Finally, the court agreed with the CRB’s disdain for the complexity of calculating a percentage of revenue licensing fee. A penny-rate structure was much simpler to handle than the “salient difficulties” presented by the RIAA’s percentage mode.

The court found nothing unreasonable about the CRB’s determination (i.e., that the the CRB’s determination was not arbitrary and capricious, and so it affirmed that determination.

Photo courtesy Flickr user totalAldo under this Creative Commons license.