The Pirate Bay verdict is no big deal

The big news story of the day is the guilty verdict from a Swedish court against the four guys behind The Pirate Bay. The judge sentenced them to a year in prison for facilitating copyright infringement and also ordered them to pay millions of dollars. The righteous indignation flows like akvavit.

I cannot see any reason why anyone outside the reach of Sweden’s laws should be all that concerned about this case. Sure, it’s grand spectacle to see an act of civil disobedience deliver its agents to purported martyrdom. But as for any legal significance outside Sweden, there is none. And does it teach us anything about the underlying interests that gave rise to the dispute? No. We have known for a long time that there are some who believe copyright law is too restrictive, and that those interests are pitted against the corporate and pecuniary interests of the big media companies.

So if one is to treat as news the fact that the RIAA and other content owners sometimes overreach, or that zealous advocates for copyright reform believe in their cause, please send me some of that sweet oblivion.

Open source software and the covenant-condition dichotomy

[Note: This is a short essay I have written in conjunction with an upcoming presentation I will give at John Marshall Law School here in Chicago next week. I invite your feedback in the comments to this post. For formatting purposes, footnotes (which are mainly to case citations) have been omitted.]

Some of the peculiarities of open source software, like the requirement of author attribution, create intriguing questions about how an open source license should be enforced in the event of its violation. Though software distributed under a “free” or open source model has existed in some form for more than a quarter century, only in the past couple of years have some of the basic questions concerning the import of terms in an open source license been litigated. The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Jacobsen v. Katzer addressed the question of whether the owner of the copyright in software distributed under an open source license may successfully pursue a claim of infringement against a party using the software in violation of the license. Answering that question in the affirmative, the court relied upon the distinction between conditions and covenants in an open source license. This essay examines that distinction’s effect on how an open source license may be enforced.

The Framework for the Analysis: Breach or Infringement?

Because software licenses (both open source and proprietary) are in the nature of a contract, one must look to principles of contract law when examining how the licenses apply. Which cause of action will be appropriate for a violation of the terms of a license depends on the legal relations between the parties. Has the licensee committed copyright infringement by its violation of the license? Or is there merely an action for breach of contract? Since the remedies available for breach of contract versus copyright infringement can differ greatly (i.e., expectation damages versus potential statutory damages, costs and attorney’s fees plus injunctive relief), an evaluation of the right way to proceed is important.

The licensor of software generally waives its right to sue the licensee for copyright infringement. Stated another way, “a licensee cannot be liable for infringing the copyright rights conveyed to it.” For a licensee to have infringed the copyright in the licensor’s software, the licensee must exercise a copyright right not granted to the licensee. We characterize this kind of use as being outside the scope of a license.

Covenants and Conditions in Software Licenses

The authority to exercise the copyright rights in software (like the right to distribute the source code and make derivate works), is established in the licensee through the operation of the license. The grant of authority is an “operative fact,” one that changes the legal relations of the parties. Drawing a familiar term from the lexicon of contract law, the authority for another to use software is a condition precedent – the operative fact that must exist prior to the existence of the legal relation of licensor and valid licensee. If this condition is not satisfied, the licensee’s authority to use the software is not there. Use of the software by another party in the absence of this authority will be an exercise of a right not granted, and, as already noted, a use of the software outside the scope of a license.

Covenants (also known as promises) in a license agreement can also affect the legal relations of the parties. Covenants are quite different from conditions precedent, however, because they refer to an intention related to a future event, not to an operative fact that must be present for authorization to exist. In the software licensing context, a covenant does not affect the authorization of the licensee to exercise the copyright rights in the software. In other words, a covenant in a software license does not define or alter the scope of the authorization.

So if a licensee merely violates a covenant of the software license agreement, the use is still within the scope of the license, and the licensor merely has a cause of action for breach of contract. But if the violation is a failure to satisfy a condition of the license, the use of the software is outside the scope (i.e., is the exercise of a right not granted). Under copyright law, exercise of rights without authorization is called infringement.

Appropriate Causes of Action in the Open Source Context

In a certain sense, the entire legitimacy of the open source model depends on the ability to successfully pursue an action for infringement of copyright. Since most open source software is distributed without the requirement for payment of a fee, a licensor would, for all practical purposes, be left remediless against unauthorized use of the software if the only avenue for recovery were for breach of contract. The appropriate measure of damages would be the amount of licensing fees that would have been collected. In the case of software distributed free of charge, that amount would be zero – not a strong deterrent to unauthorized use.

So for there to be any practical effect on how the source code is actually used, modified and distributed, the violator of an open source license must suffer liability for copyright infringement. This cause of action provides a much more robust (and therefore meaningful) set of remedies, including injunctive relief.

The Jacobsen v. Katzer Decision

Plaintiff Jacobsen wrote some software and made it available under an open source license known as the Artistic License. This open source license granted broad rights to members of the general public to do certain things with the software, including the right to distribute and create derivative works from the software and to use the software in a commercial product, provided that the licensee attribute the original creators.

Jacobsen sued defendant Katzer for copyright infringement, claiming that without permission or consent, Katzer copied the software into a commercial application without attributing the original creators. The district court denied Jacobsen’s motion for injunctive relief, finding that the terms allegedly violated were merely covenants and not conditions. The district court found the scope of the Artistic License to be “intentionally broad,” and that the requirement to insert a prominent notice of attribution did not affect the scope of the license. Therefore, the only viable cause of action was for breach of contract (for which injunctive relief was not appropriate).

Jacobsen sought review with the Federal Circuit. On appeal, the court vacated and remanded, holding that the Artistic License’s terms created conditions which Katzer failed to satisfy. The appellate court found that the license established conditions through the use of the term “provided that.” Further, the appellate court found that the district court’s interpretation did not credit the explicit restrictions found in the license that governed the right to modify and distribute the software. These restrictions successfully defined the scope of the license, and modification and distribution inconsistent with the requirements was unauthorized and therefore outside the scope. Such out-of-scope usage supported a claim for copyright infringement.

Reconciling Jacobsen

The Federal Circuit opinion in Jacobsen contains extensive praise of the open source model, noting that it “serves to advance the arts and sciences in a manner and at a pace that few could have imagined just a few decades ago.” The court went on to observe that through the collaboration inherent in open source software development, “software programs can often be written and debugged faster and at lower cost than if the copyright holder were required to do all the work independently.” One is tempted to speculate whether such a positive attitude to the concept of open source influenced the court’s decision, because there is other authority to support the proposition that an obligation to attribute does not define the scope of a license.

In Graham v. James, the Second Circuit held that the removal of a copyright notice (essentially a failure to attribute) was merely a breach of covenant and therefore did not support a claim for copyright infringement. It is difficult to ascertain how the licensor in Graham would have, in reality, viewed the use of his software without a copyright notice as being authorized (and therefore within the scope of the license). Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the contrary holding in Graham was the absence of a written agreement, and a presumption arising under New York law that the parties intend a covenant and not a condition.

Conclusion

The distinction between conditions and covenants is difficult to perceive. So much can depend on draftsmanship, as one can easily articulate the same set of circumstances to be rendered as a covenant, then a condition. The Artistic License in Jacobsen contained the magic “provided that” language. And it is a good thing it did, for the continued hope in the open source philosophy depended on the court deciding the way it did.

Retrospective: Graham v. James

I’m speaking about open source at John Marshall Law School’s 53rd Annual Intellectual Property Law Conference on February 27. More info here (warning – PDF!).

To prepare, I’m going over some important cases dealing with copyright licensing in general, that is, cases that deal with copyright licensing but not open source. In case you’re interested, here’s a writeup I just did of the classic case of Graham v. James, 144 F.3d 229 (2d Cir. 1998):

Graham contracted with James for James to develop a custom file retrieval program for use in connection with a CD-ROM compilation that Graham published. The two had an oral agreement whereby Graham would pay $1,000 to James for each new version of the CD-ROM, plus $1 for each disc sold.

After Graham and James had a falling out, Graham continued to use the program James wrote in subsequent versions of the CD-ROM. Graham had removed a copyright notice from the program’s source code, and did not pay the promised royalties. The two ended up in litigation against each other with James accusing Graham of infringing the copyright in the program.

After a bench trial, the lower court found in favor of James on the copyright infringement claim. Graham sought review with the Second Circuit. On appeal, the court vacated the judgment and remanded.

There was no dispute that a license agreement had been formed. Graham argued that at best, James could recover for breach of contract for the removal of the copyright notice and the failure to pay royalties, but not copyright infringement. James presented a number of arguments in an attempt to show there was no license that authorized the use.

One argument that James made was that Graham breached the conditions of the license agreement (and thereby used the program outside the scope of the license) by removing the copyright notice and failing to pay royalties. The court rejected this argument, holding that such activities were mere breaches of contractual covenants between the parties and not a failure to satisfy conditions of the license agreement.

Citing to Nimmer, the court easily held that one does not have a cause of action for infringement when one fails to attribute the author. So there was no infringement resulting from that.

Under the circumstances, the nonpayment of royalties was not the failure of a condition for authorized use. Under New York law, there is a presumption that terms of a contract are covenants and not conditions. In this case, James turned over the program for use before any royalties were paid. Contract obligations that are to be performed after partial performance are not treated as conditions, but as promises (i.e., covenants).

Another argument James made (which the court also rejected) was that assuming, arguendo, the nonpayment of royalties and the failure to attribute were breaches of covenants and not failures to satisfy a condition of the license, the breach of the covenant was so material that the contract was terminated by rescission.

But rescission does not happen automatically upon a substantial breach. The nonbreaching party must “manifest his intention to rescind within a reasonable time.” In this case, the record did not show that James rescinded the license to Graham.

Since James failed to show the absence of a licensing agreement or a failure to satisfy a condition of the agreement, the court vacated the copyright infringement judgment.

RIAA’s need for discovery was not so urgent

Elektra Entertainment Group, Inc. v. Does 1-6, No. 08-444 (S.D. Ohio February 5, 2009)

The RIAA’s de-emphasis on lawsuits against individual file sharers may underlie the result in a recent case from a federal court in Ohio. The music industry plaintiffs had sought expedited discovery so they could learn which members in a household (either the mother or one of the children) was responsible for illegally trading files. Finding that the need for the discovery was not urgent, the court denied the record companies’ request.

Electra Entertainment and others sued one David Licata in 2007, accusing him of infringing the copyright in sound recordings back in 2005. Licata claimed he did not know who was responsible for trading the files (though AOL had identified Licata’s account as corresponding with the offending IP address). During discovery in that case, however, Licata identified the other members of his household.

Instead of suing one or more of these other members of the household, the recording industry plaintiffs filed another John Doe suit, leaving it to later to find out the identities of the particular individuals who were allegedly infringing. But instead of acting diligently to figure out who to go after, the record companies did nothing for about five months.

Last November, the court ordered the plaintiffs to show cause why the case should not be dismissed, since the defendants had not been served with process (after all, the record companies claimed they didn’t know who to sue). In response to that order, the plaintiffs sought leave under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(d) to take expedited discovery. The court denied the motion, holding that there was not good cause shown to accelerate the normal discovery schedule.

The court looked to the long period of time — 152 days — that had passed from the suit being filed to the request for expedited discovery. That duration, coupled with the fact that the plaintiffs already knew the names of the other family members who were likely the proper defendants, undercut any argument that the need for discovery was urgent. Without such urgency (which usually exists when there is a risk that evidence will be destroyed or someone will be injured), there was no good cause to allow the depositions of the mother and children prior to the Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f) conference.

[Hat tip to Ray Beckerman for alerting me to this decision.]

Photo courtesy Flickr user swanksalot under this Creative Commons license.

Does the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech feature violate copyright law?

The executive director of the Author’s Guild apparently objects to a feature of Amazon’s new Kindle 2 that would permit the vision impaired to hear the book’s text read in a computer generated voice. The Wall Street Journal quoted Paul Aiken yesterday as saying “They don’t have the right to read a book out loud. That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

Does Aiken have a legitimate gripe? I say it depends on the technology. And the fact that there could be a difference based merely on a technological setup underscores how digital technology has sent some aspects of copyright fumbling towards absurdity.

Granted, one of the exclusive rights that a copyright owner has under the Copyright Act is the right to prepare derivative works. The Copyright Act defines a derivative work as a “work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a . . . sound recording . . . in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.” But is the sound being read aloud by the Kindle 2 truly a “work” that is protected by copyright? If it’s not a work to begin with, it can’t be a derivative work.

Copyright protection only attaches to works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. For a work to be “fixed,” it has to be embodied for more than a mere transitory duration.

Here’s where the Kindle 2’s technology could determine whether a copyrightable derivative work comes into existence. I’ve searched for some technical specifications on the Kindle 2 but haven’t found anything on this point (maybe someone in the comments can help) — if the text-to-speech functionality creates an entire file that is saved and played back, it looks more like a fixed, copyrightable work has come into existence. On the other hand, if the device creates the audio data on the fly, so to speak, and releases it into some sort of buffer that is continually overwritten, it looks less likely a copyrightable work has been created.

We can look to the Second Circuit’s Cablevision decision from last summer for guidance. (The real name and full cite to that case is Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings, 536 F.3d 121 (2nd Cir. 2008)). In Cablevision, the court held that a buffer comprising just one second of an audiovisual work at a time did not embody the work for more than a mere transitory duration.

So do you see how this could relate to the Kindle 2? If just a little part of the underlying textual work is being converted to audio at a time, there is nothing derivative being embodied for more than a mere transitory duration. Though creating audio, it would seem not to implicate the “audio right” that Aiken of the Author’s Guild mentions.

Should ISPs get paid to respond to DMCA takedown notices?

CNET News is running a story about how Jerry Scroggin, the owner of Louisiana’s Bayou Internet and Communications, expects big media to pay him for complying with DMCA takedown notices. No doubt Scroggin gets a little PR boost for his maverick attitude, and CNET keeps its traffic up by covering a provocative topic. After all, people love to see the little guy stick it to the man.

Here is something from the article that caught my attention:

Small companies like [Bayou] are innocent bystanders in the music industry’s war on copyright infringement. Nonetheless, they are asked to help enforce copyright law free of charge.

A couple of assumptions in this statement need addressing. I submit that:

ISPs are not innocent bystanders.

As much as one may disdain the RIAA, the organization is enforcing legitimate copyright rights. Though an ISP may have no bad intent to help people infringe (i.e., the “innocent” part), infringing content does pass through their systems. And few would disagree that the owner of a system is in the best position to control what happens in that system. So unless we’re going to turn the entire network over to a government, we must rely on the ISPs at the lower parts of the web to comply with the DMCA. They owe a duty. It’s in this way that the ISPs are anything by innocent bystanders in the copyright wars. In fact, they’re soldiers (albeit perhaps drafted).

Though the administrative burdens of DMCA compliance fall on the ISPs, the work is not undertaken for free.

The safe harbor that ISPs enjoy in return for compliance is a huge compensation. An entity in the safe harbor has more certainty that a suit for infringement would be unsuccessful. Were there more doubt about the outcome, there would be more litigation. More litigation equals more cost. And I guarantee you that those litigation costs would dwarf the administrative costs associated with taking down content identified in a notice. So substract the administrative costs from the hypothetical litigation costs, and there you have the compensation paid to ISPs for compliance.

What do you think?

Pirate Christmas photo courtesy Flickr user Ross_Angus under this Creative Commons license.

What could the RIAA’s switch in strategy mean?

The Wall Street Journal and others are reporting that the Recording Industry Association of America is adjusting its strategy for combating the massive infringement occasioned by the sharing of music files over the internet. Since 2003, that strategy has been to pursue copyright infringement cases against individual file sharers. The RIAA now says it will focus less on pursuing infringement litigation and more on working with internet service providers to shut down the accounts of individuals suspected of illegally trading files.

This is the third wave in the recording industry’s attack on digital piracy:

  • First wave: The labels went after the purveyors of the software used in file sharing. There are reported decisions involving Napster, Aimster and Kazaa, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court decision in MGM v. Grokster.
  • Second wave: The thousands of lawsuits against individual file sharers. Though it’s said that the RIAA sued some 35,000 people, only one of those cases went through to verdict (the Jammie Thomas case). Most settled for a few thousand dollars.
  • Third wave: Rejection of the massive litigation model (announced today) and collaboration with ISPs to combat file sharing.

So what does this change in strategy tell us? Does it mean that the RIAA has given up and the file sharers have won? It’s hard to tell. But there may be some insight to be had into the broader picture of digital copyright enforcement. Here are some observations:

  • The ability to easily make innumerable perfect copies creates a problem for copyright holders that must be addressed at a systemic level (like at the ISP level). The suits against individuals are too much like whack-a-mole to have practical effect.
  • The question of whether merely making a copy available can be infringement is problematic. So it was probably a good time for the litigation to end so that that question doesn’t have many more opportunities to be answered unfavorably for the RIAA.
  • It makes less sense to think of copyright in terms of the right to “copy” as it did in the analog-only world. What’s more important now, it seems, is a distribution or access right. Another reason to focus on the ISPs and not the individuals. For more on this, see the work of Ernest Miller and Joan Feigenbaum, Taking the Copy Out of Copyright [Warning – PDF file].
  • Shifting to a model of “punishing” file sharers before claims of infringement can be litigated presents some issues that implicate due process. See Cindy Cohn’s comments in this article.
  • Regardless of the legal merits of one’s claim (i.e., the RIAA certainly has legitimate rights to enforce), there is a public relations downside to standing up for those rights.

No matter what the shift of strategy really means, the fact that there is a shift at all demonstrates the changing dymanic of the music industry. And it points to a shift, both practical and normative, in the manner copyright law applies to the digital content.

Photo courtesy Flickr user [nati] under this Creative Commons license.

Is Twitter a big fat copyright infringing turkey?

Here’s a topic you can mull over if conversation gets slow during tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner: Does Twitter infringe your copyright every time you post to it (i.e., put up a “tweet”)?

Consider this:

One of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner (under 17 U.S.C. 106) is the right to display the work. A website displays content when it serves up pages to the end user. Posts to Twitter — though they’re only 140 characters maximum — are arguably copyright protected works. (Set aside the question of retweeting.)

Is this a picture of Twitter?

Twitter’s Terms of Service, in an earnest effort to be generous and progressive, assure users that when it comes to copyright, “what’s yours is yours.” Elaborating on this point, the Terms of Service go on to say that “[Twitter] claim[s] no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Twitter service.” In so many words, Twitter is saying “thanks but no thanks” to any copyright rights it might otherwise have over user-submitted content.

But by displaying tweets, Twitter is exercising one of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. To do this lawfully, it has to have permission. And this permission is an intellectual property right. But didn’t Twitter just tell us that it doesn’t want any such right? Yes. So it has no permission. Exercise of an exclusive copyright right without permission (fair use aside) is infringement.

So should we all go out and sue Twitter for infringement? Of course not. Twitter would have a number of good defenses, which I expect may get articulated in the comments to this post. Are you really going to pay the filing fee to the Copyright Office and register the copyright in each of your tweets? You’ll have to do that before you can even show up in court. And what about injunctive relief? A court order making Twitter take down your stuff would seem to defeat the whole purpose, at least a little bit.

Similar analysis from Venkat here.

Turkey photo courtesy Flickr user stevevoght via this Creative Commons license.

Google Book Search case settles

Three years after it was filed, much of that time existing in apparent dormancy, the copyright infringement case filed by the Authors Guild against Google Book Search (f/k/a Google Print) has settled. (Thanks to Greg Beck for alerting me to this via a post he put up on Twitter.)

Here is a page with all kinds of information about the settlement. It’s a complicated proposed agreement, so it will take some time to understand it. There is sure to be plenty of commentary from others in the blogosphere over the next day or so.

It’s good to see this resolved. Almost three years ago I was on a panel discussion at the John Marshall Law School talking about the fair use implications of the case. You can download the MP3 of that talk here.

DMCA reaches the decade mark

My friend Kevin Thompson over at Cyberlaw Central reminded me this morning in this post that President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ten years ago today. Tempus fugit. It’s interesting to reflect on how this critical piece of legislation has affected (I think fostered) the growth of the online infrastructure with its safe harbor provisions found at 17 U.S.C. 512.

DMCA at 10 years

Simply stated, the DMCA at section 512 gives safe harbor protections to providers of interactive computer services (like ISPs and websites hosting user generated content) from liability when users upload content that infringes on another’s copyright rights. To sail its ship into the safe harbor, the provider has to take certain affirmative steps, like registering an agent with the Copyright Office, terminating the accounts of repeat infringers, and, most importantly, responding appropriately to “takedown notices” sent by copyright owners identifying infringing content on the provider’s system.

Though few could disagree with the principle of protecting service providers from infringement liability occasioned by the conduct of third party users (i.e., stemming from user generated content), the DMCA has its critics. And the actual mechanism has some bugs.

A big factor in the problem is the sheer volume of user generated content that’s put online. How can an operator like YouTube, who gets hours of new content loaded to its servers every minute, reasonably be expected to give meaningful review to every takedown notice that comes its way? It can’t.

So for practical reasons, big providers (and smaller ones alike) take down accused content essentially with a rubber stamp. And who can blame them? It saves administrative time and helps ensure safe harbor protection. But there are negative consequences to users and to the public. These consequences on the First Amendment and other rights are well-exemplified by the recent correspondence between the McCain-Palin campaign and YouTube, with amicus-like voices joining the chorus.

Like any ten-year old, the DMCA shows signs of maturity. It has withstood a decade of scrutiny, all the while giving service providers peace of mind, along with relatively efficient mechanisms for copyright owners to get infringing material taken down quickly. But also like a ten-year-old, the challenging years of adolescence — and the accompanying rudimentary changes — are around the corner. It’ll still be the DMCA, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some transformation going on as user generated content becomes less a novelty and more a standard.

Birthday cake photo courtesy of Flickr user “juverna” via this Creative Commons license.

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