Does publication on the web give rise to “access” in copyright infringement analysis?

2003lookbackPlaintiff sued defendant for copyright infringement. Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings (which is essentially the same thing as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim except it is after defendant files an answer). Defendant asserted that plaintiff had not pled copyright infringement because under the Seventh Circuit’s “substantial similarity” test to demonstrate infringement, plaintiff had not pled defendant had “access” to the allegedly infringed work.

The court rejected defendant’s argument and denied the motion for judgment on the pleadings on this issue.

In some copyright infringement cases, a plaintiff may not have direct evidence that the defendant committed infringement. In those situations, a finder of fact may infer that infringement has occurred when it is shown that:

  • the defendant had access to the copyrighted work; and
  • the accused work is substantially similar to the copyrighted work.

In this case, defendant argued it never had access to plaintiff’s designs that it was alleged to have infringed. But the court considered the online publication, 11 years ago, of plaintiff’s designs, to find access for purposes of the motion for judgment on the pleadings:

With regard to online publication, in 2003, [plaintiff] first published the [allegedly infringed work] at [its website]. The Internet already was widely used and accessible at that time. Because the non-movant is entitled to reasonable favorable inferences in evaluating a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the online publication is enough to establish access for purposes of denying [defendant’s] motion for judgment on the pleadings.

The court’s decision provides no meaningful analysis as to why publication on the web gives rise to access. It states the finding above in such a conclusory manner as if to indicate it sets forth some per se rule. But one is left to wonder whether other factual nuance would change the answer to the inquiry: What if publication were in 1993 rather than 2003, at a time when many, many fewer people were on the web? What if the publication were behind a paywall for which defendant had no authorization to pass? What if defendant pled it did not utilize the web for this sort of information, or, even more compellingly, not at all?

Skyline Design, Inc. v. McGrory Glass, Inc., 2014 WL 258564 (N.D.Ill. January 23, 2014)

Can a website be liable for linking to infringing content?

Gawker facing Grokster-like challenge in suit by Quentin Tarantino over leaked script.

gawksterThe Hollywood Reporter has covered Quentin Tarantino’s copyright infringement lawsuit against Gawker for publishing links to leaked copies of the script of a yet-to-be-made Tarantino film. The complaint alleges that certain anonymous defendants are directly liable for infringement for uploading the script, and that Gawker is secondarily liable for the infringement.

Going after Gawker that way makes sense, because the site cannot be directly liable for infringement if it did not exploit any of Tarantino’s exclusive rights under Section 106 of the Copyright Act, viz.: the right to copy, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, or make a derivative work.

None of those rights are implicated by simply publishing a link. So if Gawker is shown to be liable for copyright infringement, it will have to be derived from the direct infringement of the parties who uploaded the content, and/or the infringement occasioned by Gawker users who download the script.

These facts call for an analysis under the Supreme Court’s 2005 Grokster decision, which held that:

[O]ne who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.

The Grokster analysis gets some color in the Ninth Circuit (Tarantino’s suit is pending in federal court in California) in the 2013 case of Columbia Pictures v. Fung (the Isohunt case). In that case, the appellate court held that Isohunt was secondarily liable for the infringement occasioned by its users under the Grokster analysis. Like Gawker, Isohunt’s conduct did not implicate any of the plaintiffs’ Section 106 rights. Instead, its liability was premised on the conduct it undertook to direct users to the acquisition of infringing content.

Gawker is of course no stranger to controversy. Just last week we covered a Florida case dealing with Gawker’s First Amendment rights to publish excerpts of the Hulk Hogan sex tape. This bold move of publishing provocatively certainly continues that trend. But this time that move could face some serious Grokster-like consequences.

Copyright and the JFK Assassination

Fifty years ago today, which was of course long before smartphones with cameras, Abraham Zapruder filmed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy using his 8 millimeter color home movie camera. Not only did the Zapruder film become iconic, its subsequent treatment formed the basis for a later copyright case that presented some interesting issues.

A few days after the assassination, in exchange for $150,000, Zapruder assigned the copyright in the film to Life Magazine (actually its parent company Time Inc.). In 1967, Josiah Thompson wrote a book about the assassination that contained charcoal sketches copied from frames of the Zapruder film.

Time sued for copyright infringement. Defendants moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion.

Among other things, defendants argued that the frames from the Zapruder film were not entitled to copyright protection in the first place because they lacked originality. The court rejected this argument, noting that:

The Zapruder pictures in fact have many elements of creativity. Among other things, Zapruder selected the kind of camera (movies, not snapshots), the kind of film (color), the kind of lens (telephoto), the area in which the pictures were to be taken, the time they were to be taken, and (after testing several sites) the spot on which the camera would be operated.

The case also had a fair use component. As is still the reality 50 years later, the court observed that “the [fair use] doctrine is entirely equitable and is so flexible as virtually to defy definition.” It cited an earlier decision that called the issue “the most troublesome in the whole law of copyright.”

The fair use analysis is particularly interesting in that it took place, obviously, before the 1976 Copyright Act, which codified the now well-known fair use factors. But it looked to the same language that is now in Section 107 of the Act, which then was merely a passed Hose Bill (H.R. 2512) but still under consideration by the Senate. It wasn’t until more than 10 years later that the factors actually became codified.

The court held that the fair use factors went in defendants’ favor. It noted the substantial public interest in having the fullest information available. And it concluded that people bought the book not for the Zapruder pictures, but because of the theory and explanation set forth in it, supported by the Zapruder pictures. Moreover, there was little, if any, injury to the copyright owner. There was no competition between plaintiff and defendants. And here is a theme that persists to this day, even as recently as the Google Book Search decision: “It seems more reasonable to speculate that the Book would, if anything, enhance the value of the copyrighted work; it is difficult to see any decrease in its value.”

Time Inc. v. Bernard Geis Associates, 293 F.Supp. 130 (D.C.N.Y 1968)

What the Google Book Search fair use decision means for innovators

(This is a slightly modified cross-post from my firm’s blog.)

Yesterday the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Google’s motion for summary judgment in the 8-year-running Google Book Search case. The court held that Google’s copying and display of in-copyright books is a noninfringing fair use. The decision is a signal that modern copyright law, despite its many flaws that become apparent in the digital age, will make at least some room for technological innovation.

About the Case

In 2004, Google announced plans to scan the full text of millions of books, both in the public domain and in-copyright, and to make those scanned works searchable on the web. For in-copyright works, Google would make “snippets,” each comprised of 1/8 of a page, available as search results for keywords contained within them.

Plaintiffs (some individual authors and the Authors Guild) sued Google in 2005 for copyright infringement. The parties reached a settlement agreement in 2008, but the court later rejected that agreement. Earlier this year, plaintiffs suffered a setback when the Second Circuit held that a class action was not appropriate because of the fact-specific fair use questions.

Back at the trial court level, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. Google argued, as it had from the outset, that the scanning and display is a noninfringing fair use. The court granted Google’s summary judgment motion.

The Court’s Decision

Fair use is an affirmative defense to copyright infringement. Section 107 of the Copyright Act guides a court on how to determine whether a defendant’s use is fair. That provision instructs that it is not copyright infringement if one uses another’s work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” It goes on to provide that a court should apply four non-exhaustive factors in the fair use analysis:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In this case, the court began its fair use analysis by emphasizing how “[c]opyright law seeks to [provide] sufficient protection to authors and inventors to stimulate creative activity, while at the same time permitting others to utilize protected works to advance the progress of the arts and sciences.”

In applying the fair use factors, the court focused extensively on the first factor (purpose and character of the use). In this analysis, the court looked to the key question of whether the use was “transformative.” Borrowing from the Supreme Court, the court looked to whether Google’s scanning and display of the works “superseded” or “supplanted” the original creation, or whether the conduct:

instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.”

The court found the use to be transformative, comparing the “snippets” to thumbnail images, which were found to be protected by fair use in a 2003 case (Kelly v. Arriba Soft) involving an image search engine. Moreover, the court’s opinion noted the extensive benefits occasioned by Google’s efforts, including:

  • The creation of new and efficient ways for readers and researchers to find books.
  • The increased ability to conduct “data mining” or “text mining” research. For example, using the tool, researchers can examine word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time.
  • The expansion of access to books. In particular, the court noted how traditionally underserved populations will benefit as they gain knowledge of and access to far more books. Digitization facilitates the conversion of books to audio and tactile formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities.
  • The preservation and “new life” of old and out of print books.

The court acknowledged the idea that Google was engaged in commercial activity through the scanning project. But such fact was not dispositive to the fair use finding. Given the nature of the benefits, the court was satisfied that the purpose and character of the use supported a fair use finding.

On the second fair use factor, the court found that because the works were already published and were non-fiction, the balance tilted in favor of fair use.

The third factor came out “slightly” in Google’s favor. While a copying of all of a work will generally weigh against the defendant in considering the “amount and substantiality of the portion used,” the fact that the search feature would not function properly had the entire work not been scanned, put this factor on Google’s side.

Finally, on the fourth fair use factor — effect on the market — the court rejected plaintiff’s arguments that the scanning and display will negatively affect the sale of plaintiff’s works. Google does not sell the scanned copies, nor would it be feasible or practicable for a user to obtain an entire copy of the work through an assemblage of snippets. In fact, the court noted how the platform will help readers and researchers identify books, thus benefiting authors and publishers. From this, the court found, Google Books will generate new audiences and create new sources of income.

What This Says About Innovation and the Law

Google’s use of technology in this situation was disruptive. It challenged the expectation of copyright holders, who used copyright law to challenge that disruption. It bears noting that in the court’s analysis, it assumed that copyright infringement had taken place. But since fair use is an affirmative defense, it considered whether Google had carried its burden of showing that the circumstances warranted a finding that the use was fair. In this sense, fair use serves as a backstop against copyright ownership extremism. Under these particular circumstances — where Google demonstrated incredible innovation — that backstop provided room for the innovation to take root and grow. Technological innovators should be encouraged.

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