Anonymous accused Bittorrent user moves to quash subpoena using real name

Worldwide Film Entertainment, LLC v. Does 1-749, 2010 WL 2011306 (D.D.C. May 20, 2009)

Some have already commented on their scruples arising from the large economies of scale approach to copyright litigation that’s being undertaken by lawyers with the U.S. Copyright Group to go after Bittorrent movie sharers. See, for example, what Mike Masnick and Eriq Gardner have had to say. And the ISPs aren’t all that happy about the work required to respond to a bunch of subpoenas.

So no one should be surprised if some interesting little internet law vignettes play out along the way. One of those vignettes is wrapping up in federal court in Washington D.C. It has to do with anonymity.

Worldwide Film Entertainment has sued over 700 anonymous Bittorrent users over the 2007 film The Gray Man. As with any case of this sort (like the numerous RIAA lawsuits), the plaintiff doesn’t know the identity of the various defendants when the lawsuit starts. All it has is an IP address for each alleged infringement, so it has to go to the ISP to link that IP address with an individual’s name and physical address. Then the plaintiff will know who to list as a defendant.

But most ISPs won’t turn over subscriber information without a subpoena. So Worldwide Film Entertainment had a subpoena issue to Comcast, the ISP for the IP address associated with one of the alleged infringements. Under the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (at 47 USC 551), providers like Comcast have to notify their subscriber before turning over the subscriber’s information.

Comcast notified its subscriber in this case, one Mr. Simko, of Worldwide Film Entertainment’s efforts to learn Mr. Simko’s identity.

And here’s the part that makes this little vignette so charming: rather than challenge the plaintiff’s efforts to unmask his identity, Mr. Simko filed a motion to quash the subpoena USING HIS REAL NAME.

The court denied the motion to quash. The basis for denying the motion is kind of an aside (the motion to quash phase was not the right time to challenge venue or knowledge of the infringement).

What’s noteworthy about the case is Mr. Simko’s decision to voluntarily waive his anonymity. Not only did he challenge the subpoena using his own name, he filed as an exhibit the letter he got from Comcast notifying him of the subpoena. Right there, in all caps and as plain as day were Simko’s name and address for all to see.

Photo courtesy Flickr user pourmecoffee.

How Twitter’s grant to the Library of Congress could be copyright-okay

Indigo Bunting - Audubon

Twitter is giving a copy of the archive of all tweets from the beginning of time to the Library of Congress. The inevitable outrage has ensued. One big concern is privacy. You gotta admit it’s creepy (and evokes Big Brother) to know that all your tweets will belong to the feds.

The other outrage-catalyst is copyright, and the possible violation of the license that one grants to Twitter via the terms of service.

Venkat and I exchanged some email earlier today on this topic. What if you delete your tweets? Doesn’t that terminate the license you gave to Twitter to store and share your content? How can the Library of Congress still keep its copy if the original license has ended? Fred Stutzman has also asked these kinds of questions.

These objections seem to presume that if one were to remove his or her tweets from Twitter, the license would be revoked, and any subsequent display by Twitter would be an infringement. I imagine that’s true in relation to Twitter, but I’m not so convinced when it comes to the Library of Congress. They’d likely fall under Section 108 of the Copyright Act.

Section 108 (17 USC 108) says that it’s not an infringement for a library to make a copy or distribute a work if (1) it’s not for commercial advantage, (2) the collections of the library are open to the public or available to all researchers in a particular field, and (3) the notice of copyright in the original work remains intact or if no notice can be found, there’s a legend stating that it may be protected under copyright.

You see what I’m saying? The Library of Congress would appear to have the right to archive one’s Twitter stream regardless of any assitance on Twitter’s part. In other words, by providing the archive, Twitter is just helping the LOC do something it’s entitled to do anyway.

What do you think?

BitTorrent site liable for Grokster style inducement of copyright infringement

Columbia Pictures v. Fung, No. 06-5578 (C.D. Cal. December 21, 2009).

This case came out three weeks ago, but it’s pretty significant and hasn’t gotten the coverage and analysis it deserves. Of course Professor Goldman covered it in a timely manner. But his blogging agility surpasses that of us mere mortals.

Fung and his company Isohunt Web Technolgies ran a number of popular BitTorrent sites where users could find and share torrent files that permitted the downloading of video files. [Here’s how BitTorrent works.] Several Hollywood studios sued Fung and his company for copyright infringement over the operation of the sites and the activites of the sites’ users.

Ostriches don't actually put their head in the sand

The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on the copyright claims. The court granted the motion.

The court based its ruling on a theory of “secondary liability” — that is, Fung and his company were liable for the copyright infringement (i.e., the distribution of copyrighted movies and TV shows) committed by users of the sites. More specifically, the court held that the defendants induced copyright infringement, citing to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in MGM v. Grokster.

The defendants’ inducement of copyright infringement

Under Grokster, “one 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.”

In this case, the court found numerous ways that the defendants had induced copyright infringement. Among the defendants’ activities that gave rise to secondary liability were:

  • Providing categories on the sites to assist users in locating and downloading currently-popular movies, and making express statements to third parties to encourage copyright infringement
  • Providing technical support to users who desired to download and view copyrighted materials.
  • Implementing technical features (such as crawling The Pirate Bay) to locate copyrighted material
  • Relying on an advertising based business model that benefitted from high volume traffic drawn by the availability of infringing material

Rejection of the defendants’ DMCA affirmative defense

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the safe harbors of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) should shield the torrent sites form liability.

A service provider can sail its ship into a DMCA safe harbor if, among other things, it does not have actual knowledge of, or is not willfully blind to, infringing activities being undertaken through its system. Said another way, the limitation of liability afforded by the DMCA is lost if the provider becomes aware of a “red flag” from which infringing activity is apparent.

The court found that the defendants did not qualify for safe harbor protection because of the “overwhelming” evidence that the defendants knew of the infringing activity. The court borrowed from the Aimster case to state that the defendants would not have known of the infringement only if they engaged in an “ostrich-like refusal” to observe what was happening. That willful blindess would not serve as an excuse.

Ostrich photo courtesy of Flickr user Pedronet under this Creative Commons license.

Do Twitter’s new terms of service forsake third party developers?

Twitter announced its new Terms of Service yesterday. One big issue deals with copyright ownership. This is one of the perennial questions in the law of social media: “who owns the user-created content?” Twitter nods to this issue when it states that “Twitter is allowed to ‘use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute’ your tweets because that’s what we do. However, they are your tweets and they belong to you.”

That’s all well and good. And by not being too grabby, Twitter avoids stirring up a brouhaha like Facebook did earlier this year for a little while when it claimed a very broad license in users’ content. In that situation, some pointed out that Facebook could use your content forever, even after you deleted your account. No doubt Twitter was motivated by an aversion to controversy of this sort when it decided to not claim a perpetual license.

But is Twitter being too cautious? The license it claims in the new terms of service does not specify a duration. That’s user-friendly, because such a license is probably terminable at will by the user. Under cases like Walthal v. Rusk, 172 F.3d 481 (7th Cir. 1999), Twitter would no longer have the authority to use, copy, reproduce, etc. the tweets of a user that no longer permitted such use be made. Deleting one’s account would be a good indication that such a license was being revoked. And the user could follow up with an express statement to Twitter that the license no longer exists.

Still all well and good. But let’s look at the “ecosystem” that has been nourished by the Twitter API, and which Twitter bolsters in its new terms of service. (“We encourage and permit broad re-use of Content. The Twitter API exists to enable this.”)

Third party developers can build apps that, among other things, cache users’ Tweets and make them available for mashup, organization, etc. and redisplay. These acts by the third party developer are an exercise of rights of the copyright holder, i.e., the individual Twitter user. The terms of service allow Twitter to sublicense these rights to the third party developer, so there is no problem so long as the individual Twitter user is under the terms of service.

What happens, though, in the situation we were just discussing where the individual user revokes the license to Twitter? These cached copies out there in the possession of third party developers all of a sudden become unauthorized, because Twitter no longer has the sublicensable right to allow the tweets’ copying and redistribution by others.

In such a situation, are third party developers who continue to display the content left blowing in the wind, as infringers of erstwhile Twitter users’ copyright rights?

Notice sign photo courtesy Flickr user szlea under this Creative Commons license.

Record companies win $1.92 million in case against individual file sharer

There has only been one copyright infringement case filed against an individual accused of illegally sharing music files over the internet to actually go to trial. That’s the case of Capitol Records v. Jammie Thomas. In October 2007, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota returned a verdict of $222,000 against Ms. Thomas. The court on its own motion vacated that judgment, and ordered a retrial. That retrial concluded on June 18, 2009, with a judgment of a whopping $1.92 million against Ms. Thomas.

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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.

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