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.

Subpoena to university in P2P case must give time to notify parents

UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Doe, No. 08-3999, 2008 WL 4104207 (N.D.Cal. September 4, 2008)

Plaintiff record companies, using Media Sentry, found the IP address of a John Doe file-sharing defendant, and filed suit against Doe in federal court for copyright infringement. As in any case where a defendant is known only by his or her IP address, the record companies needed some discovery to ascertain the name and physical address matching that IP address. But the federal rules of procedure say that without a court order, a party cannot seek discovery until the parties have conferred pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f).

So the record companies sought the court order allowing them to issue a subpoena to Doe’s Internet service provider prior to the 26(f) conference. The court granted the order, but with a caveat.

The evidence showed that Doe was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act at 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, a college generally cannot disclose “any personally identifiable information in education records other than directory information.” There’s an exception to that rule when the college is answering a lawfully issued subpoena, provided that “parents and the students are notified of all such … subpoenas in advance of the compliance therewith by the educational institution or agency.”

The court granted the record companies’ motion for leave to serve the subpoena prior to the Rule 26(f) conference, but required that the subpoena’s return date “be reasonably calculated to permit the University to notify John Doe and John Doe’s parents if it chooses prior to responding to the subpoena.”

Veoh eligible for DMCA Safe Harbor

[Brian Beckham is a contributor to Internet Cases and can be contacted at brian.beckham [at] gmail dot com.]

Io Group, Inc. v. Veoh Networks, Inc., 2008 WL 4065872 (N.D.Cal. Aug. 27, 2008)

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that Veoh’s hosting of user-provided content is protected by the DMCA safe harbor provision, and that it does not have a duty to police for potential copyright infringement on behalf of third-parties, but rather must act to remove infringing content when so put on notice.

IO produces adult films; Veoh hosts, inter alia, its own “Internet TV channels” and user-posted content (much like YouTube). In June 2006, IO discovered clips from ten (10) of its copyrighted films ranging from 6 seconds to 40 minutes in length hosted on Veoh. Rather than sending Veoh a “DMCA Notice & Takedown” letter, IO filed the instant copyright infringement suit. (Coincidentally, Veoh had already removed all adult content sua sponte — including IO’s prior to the suit). Had Veoh received such a notice, so the story goes, it would have removed the content, and terminated the posting individual’s account.

When a user submits a video for posting, Veoh’s system extracts certain metadata (e.g., file format and length), assigns a file number, extracts several still images (seen on the site as an icon), and converts the video to Flash. Prior to posting, Veoh’s employees randomly spot check the videos for compliance with Veoh’s policies (i.e., that the content is not infringing third-party copyrights). On at least one occasion, such a spot check revealed infringing content (an unreleased movie) which was not posted.

Veoh moved for summary judgment under the DMCA’s Safe Harbors which “provide protection from liability for: (1) transitory digital network communications; (2) system caching; (3) information residing on systems or networks at the direction of users; and (4) information location tools.” Ellison, 357 F.3d at 1076-77. Finding that Veoh is a Service Provider under the DMCA, the Court had little trouble in finding that it qualified for the Safe Harbors. IO admitted that Veoh “(a) has adopted and informed account holders of its repeat infringer policy and (b) accommodates, and does not interfere with, “standard technical measures” used to protect copyrighted works”, but took issue with the manner in which Veoh implemented its repeat infringer policy.

Veoh clearly established that it had a functioning DMCA Notice & Takedown system:

  • Veoh has identified its designated Copyright Agent to receive notification of claimed violations and included information about how and where to send notices of claimed infringement.
  • Veoh often responds to infringement notices the same day they are received.
  • When Veoh receives notice of infringement, after a first warning, the account is terminated and all content provided by that user disabled.
  • Veoh terminates access to other identical infringing files and permanently blocks them from being uploaded again.
  • Veoh has terminated over 1,000 users for copyright infringement.

The Court held that Veoh did not have a duty to investigate whether terminated users were re-appearing under pseudonyms, but that as long as it continued to effectively address alleged infringements, it continued to qualify for the DMCA Safe Harbors; moreover, it did not have to track users’ IP addresses to readily identify possibly fraudulent new user accounts.

The Court further noted that: “In essence, a service provider [Veoh] is eligible for safe harbor under section 512(c) if it (1) does not know of infringement; or (2) acts expeditiously to remove or disable access to the material when it (a) has actual knowledge, (b) is aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent, or (c) has received DMCA-compliant notice; and (3) either does not have the right and ability to control the infringing activity, or – if it does – that it does not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity.”

The Court found that (1) there was no question that Veoh did not know of the alleged infringement — since IO did not file a DMCA Notice (2) it acted expeditiously to remove user-posted infringing content, (3) it did not have actual knowledge of infringement, (4) it was not aware of infringing activity, and (5) it did not have the right and ability to control the infringing activity (the Court did not address any financial benefit).

In sum: the Court “[did] not find that the DMCA was intended to have Veoh shoulder the entire burden of policing third-party copyrights on its website (at the cost of losing its business if it cannot). Rather, the issue [was] whether Veoh [took] appropriate steps to deal with [alleged] copyright infringement.”

There is much speculation as to how, if at all, this case will affect the Viacom / YouTube case. YouTube praised the decision, Viacom noted the differences. Each case turns on its own facts, but to the extent there are similarities, this decision is wind in YouTube’s sails.

Case is: IO Group Inc.(Plaintiff), v. Veoh Networks, Inc. (Defendant)

Sender of DMCA takedown notice should consider fair use

Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., No. 07-3783 (N.D. Cal. August 20, 2008). [Download the opinion]

Hat tip to Joe Gratz for breaking this story.

One of the things that a person sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has to swear to is that he or she “has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.” 17 U.S.C. §512(c)(3)(A) (emphasis added). If the sender of the takedown notice makes a knowingly material misrepresentation as to whether the law authorizes the use of the material, the party whose content is taken down can sue under 17 U.S.C. §512(f). This serves as a backstop against DMCA takedown abuses.

Suppose that the complained-of work may be protected by fair use. If the sender is deliberately ignorant of that possibility, can that result in a misrepresentation that runs afoul of 512(f)? That question had not been answered before today, when the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said “yes.”

The case is Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., No. 07-3783. You may have heard of this case before, as it’s the one where the mom filmed her daughter dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and uploaded that to YouTube, only to have it removed after a Universal DMCA takedown notice. Lenz sued under §512(f) and Universal moved to dismiss.

In its motion to dismiss, Universal contended that copyright owners cannot be required to evaluate the question of fair use prior to sending a takedown notice because fair use is merely an excused infringement of a copyright rather than a use authorized by the copyright owner or by law.

But the court disagreed. “[T]he fact remains that fair use is a lawful use of a copyright. Accordingly, in order for a copyright owner to proceed under the DMCA with ‘a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law,’ the owner must evaluate whether the material makes fair use of the copyright.” The court went on to say that “[a]n allegation that a copyright owner acted in bad faith by issuing a takedown notice without proper consideration of the fair use doctrine thus is sufficient to state a misrepresentation claim pursuant to Section 512(f) of the DMCA.”

Because Lenz’s complaint contained allegations of this nature, it was detailed enough to pass Twombly muster [Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, — U.S. —-, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007)], and the case moves forward.

The practical effect of this decision is that one sending a DMCA takedown notice without considering whether the person who posted the content is making a fair use, does so at his or her peril. Let’s be clear — the decision does not mean that sending a takedown notice in a situation where it turns out to be a fair use will automatically result in a finding of §512(f) misrepresentation. But it does add another implicit item on the checklist of the takedown notice sender.

Statutory damages for copying competitor’s catalog on website

Silver Ring Splint Co. v. Digisplint, Inc., 2008 WL 2478390 (W.D.Va. June 18, 2008)

Silver Ring and Digisplint are competitors in a niche industry, each producing and selling fine jewelry quality finger splints made of gold and sterling silver. Silver ring sued Digisplint for copyright infringement alleging that Digisplint copied text from Silver Ring’s 1994 catalog, and posted that text on Digisplint’s website.

Before trial, the court awarded summary judgment to Silver Ring on the question of liability for copyright infringement. The question of damages proceeded to trial. Finding that “nearly identical and very similar text comprise[d] substantial portions of both [works],” and that the similarities were “obvious and persuasive,” the court awarded Silver Ring $30,000 in statutory damages pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §504(c)(1). It found that Digisplint’s copying was willful, and although Digisplint reaped no profits from the infringement, the award was to serve as a deterrent to future conduct of the sort.

Digisplint had filed a counterclaim pursuant to the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) over Silver Ring’s registration of digisplint.com. The court found in favor of Digisplint on this claim, and entered an injunction against any further registration of a confusingly similar domain name. But because Silver Ring registered the domain name in 1998, prior to the enactment of the ACPA, Digisplint was entitled to no money damages, only an injunction.

Court tosses abuse of process claim brought by former file sharing defendant

Chan v. Priority Records, LLC, No. 07-15449, 2008 WL 2447147 (E.D. Mich. June 18, 2008)

Priority Records sued Candy Chan for copyright infringement, claiming she used iMesh to download and trade music files. The record company withdrew the suit when Ms. Chan told them it was her daughter that traded the files. The daughter became a defendant too, but that case was thrown out on a procedural issue.

Ms. Chan tried to recover her attorney’s fees in the copyright lawsuit against her, but the court denied the request. So she filed her own lawsuit against Priority Records, its law firm, and Settlement Support Center, alleging abuse of process and violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

The defendants moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

It held that Ms. Chan’s claims could have — and, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 13(a) should have — been brought as compulsory counterclaims. Ms. Chan had raised these issues (but did not file the counterclaim) in the underlying copyright suit. Most of the allegations in this suit alleged illegal conduct occurring prior to the filing of the underlying copyright suit. And many of the allegations involved only Ms. Chan’s daughter, not Ms. Chan herself.

Auction of promo CDs covered under first sale doctrine

UMG Recordings v. Augusto, —F.Supp.2d —-, 2008 WL 2390037 (C.D. Cal. June 10, 2008)

Some record companies create promotional CDs that they distribute to music industry insiders before an album is released. These promo CDs bear the following language:

This CD is the property of the record company and is licensed to the intended recipient for personal use only. Acceptance of this CD shall constitute an agreement to comply with the terms of the license. Resale or transfer of possession is not allowed and may be punishable under federal and state laws.

Troy Augusto is not an industry insider, but he bought copies of promo CDs in record stores and online, and he resold those copies on eBay. Record label UMG sent a notice to eBay under eBay’s Verified Rights Owner program (“VeRO”) and got Augusto’s account suspended. UMG also sued Augusto for copyright infringement. Augusto counterclaimed under Section 512(f) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), claiming that UMG knowingly misrepresented to eBay that the auctions infringed UMG’s copyrights.

CD

Both sides moved for summary judgment on whether Augusto had infringed, and Augusto also moved for summary judgment on the DMCA misrepresentation claim. The court granted Augusto’s motion as it related to infringement, but denied it as to misrepresentation.

The court found that Augusto’s conduct was protected by the first sale doctrine. This principle is codified at 17 U.S.C. §109(a) and provides that “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under [Title 17 of the United States Code]… is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.” To invoke the first sale doctrine, Augusto had to show that (1) the CDs were lawfully manufactured with UMG’s authorization, (2) UMG transferred title to the CDs, (3) Augusto was the lawful owner of the CDs, and (4) Augusto disposed of, but did not reproduce, the CDs.

In this case, it was undisputed that the CDs were lawfully manufactured by UMG and that Augusto did not reproduce them. The remaining elements, i.e., that UMG transferred title to the CDs and Augusto was the lawful owner of them, hinged on the question of whether the mailing of the CDs to the industry insiders resulted in a transfer of title.

The court found that title to the CDs passed because the language on them did not create a valid license, and the recipients were entitled to treat the CDs as gifts pursuant to the Postal Reorganization Act, 39 U.S.C. §3009.

In determining that the purported license was invalid, the court found that a significant hallmark of a license — an intent to regain possession — was missing. Further, the absence of any recurring benefit to UMG (the recipients were under no obligation to promote the music) suggested the distribution was a mere gift or sale, and not a license.

Moreover, the only benefit to UMG in having the provision enforced as a license would be to restrain trade, which would run contrary to century old Supreme Court precedent.

The court determined that the CDs were, under the Postal Reorganization Act, a gift. Under that act, if one mails unordered merchandise to a consumer without the consumer’s consent, the merchandise may be treated as a gift, and the consumer may dispose of it as he or she sees fit. Despite UMG’s argument to the contrary, the court held that industry insiders receiving the promo CDs were consumers. The court further held (rejecting UMG’s argument) that the Postal Reorganization Act did not apply only to merchandise for which payment was requested.

In rejecting Augusto’s DMCA Section 512(f) claim that UMG misrepresented the fact of infringement when it demanded eBay remove the auctions, the court found that UMG had a subjective good faith belief in its assertions. Under the holding of Rossi v. MPAA, 391 F.3d 1000 (9th Cir. 2004), this subjective good faith belief could not constitute a Section 512(f) misrepresentation.

UMG and Motley Crue sued for infringement of band photos

Toma v. Motley Crue et al., No. 08-3479 (N.D. Ill., Filed June 17, 2008)

The purported owner of the copyright in photos taken of members of Motley Crue way back in 1981 has filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the band, Universal Music Group and Singatures Network have committed copyright infringement. [Read the Complaint] Interesting to see UMG, who is frequently on the dishing-it-out side in so many of the file sharing lawsuits now being put in the position of taking it.

The claims in the lawsuit are pretty straightforward, and the complaint is written in typical federal pleading bare bones style. In a nutshell, plaintiff Toma allegedly acquired the copyright in the photos through assignment from the photgrapher, one Michael Pinter (though Toma didn’t seek registration until March of this year). The defendants are alleged to have committed infringement by “publishing and selling” copies of the images.

Toma seeks actual damages plus costs and attorney’s fees (not sure of the basis for an attorney’s fee award given the timing of registration) as well as injunctive relief from any futher infringement.

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