Court refuses to help author who was victim of alleged bogus DMCA takedown notices

Author and her publisher disagreed on the content of two of the author’s new books. (As an aside, this author is very prolific — she alleges that she publishes a new book every two weeks!) So rather than deal with publisher, author self-published the works on Amazon. Publisher sent DMCA takedown notices to Amazon, with which Amazon complied. Author sued publisher under Section 512(f) of the DMCA, which provides penalties against senders of DMCA takedown notices that knowingly materially misrepresent claims of infringement. She sought a temporary restraining order (TRO), asking the court to instruct publisher to tell Amazon to make the works available.

The court denied the TRO motion. It found that author had failed to show she would suffer irreparable harm if the works were not put back on the market. In the court’s view, author failed to show how a temporary delay in sales would affect her reputation or goodwill.

The case presents an interesting issue concerning a party’s right to send a DMCA takedown notice. Author alleges that her agreement with publisher provided she owns the copyright in her works, and that publisher merely has a right of first refusal to publish any “sequels” to her previous works. So if what author is saying is true, that publisher does not have a copyright interest in the books but merely a contract interest, she stands a good chance, ultimately, on her 512(f) claim.

Flynn v. Siren-BookStrand, Inc., 2013 WL 5315959 (September 20, 2013)

Court rules against Ripoff Report in copyright case

Xcentric Ventures, LLC v. Mediolex Ltd., 2012 WL 5269403 (D.Ariz. October 24, 2012)

Plaintiff Xcentric Ventures provides the infamous Ripoff Report, a website where consumers can go to defame complain about businesses they have dealt with. Defendant ComplaintsBoard.com is a similar kind of website.

Ripoff Report’s Terms of Service provide that users grant Ripoff Report an exclusive license in the content they post to the site. Based on this right, Xcentric sued various defendants associated with ComplaintsBoard for “encourag[ing] and permit[ing] consumers to post content that has been exclusively licensed to Xcentric.”

Defendants moved to dismiss the copyright infringement claim, asserting they were protected by the safe harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”). The court granted the motion to dismiss, but not because of the DMCA.

DMCA Analysis

The safe harbor provision of the DMCA states that a “service provider shall not be liable for monetary relief” if all of the following requirements are met:

(1) it does not have actual knowledge that the material on its network is infringing;

(2) it is not aware of facts or circumstances that would make the infringing activity apparent;and

(3) upon obtaining knowledge or awareness of such infringing activity, it acts expeditiously to remove or disable access to the copyrighted material.

In this case, Xcentric alleged that defendants actively “encouraged and permitted” copyright infringement by ComplaintsBoard users. The court held that this allegation, if taken as true, could be sufficient to preclude defendants from taking advantage of the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions.

But the court went on to hold that Xcentric had failed to state a copyright claim on which relief may be granted.

Secondary Liability Insufficiently Pled

Xcentric did not allege that defendants directly infringed copyright. Instead, it alleged that by encouraging and permitting users to copy and republish material, ComplaintsBoard was engaged in secondary infringement — either vicarious or contributory infringement.

To state a claim for contributory copyright infringement, Xcentric had to plead that ComplaintsBoard had knowledge of the infringing activity and induced, caused, or materially contributed to the infringing conduct of its users. The court found that Xcentric had not alleged any facts that would lead to a reasonable inference that defendants knew of their users’ republishing Xcentric’s copyrighted content or that defendants had induced, caused, or materially contributed to such republication.

To successfully plead vicarious infringement, Xcentric had to show that defendants had the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity and also had a direct financial interest in those activities. The court found that Xcentric had not put forward enought facts to show that defendants had the right and ability to supervise the infringing activity.

DMCA takedown notices are not just for content

Apple using the DMCA to stop early sales of iOS 6.

The infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown process gets quite a bit of press when content owners such as movie studios and record companies use it to take infringing copies of films or music offline. The safe harbor provisions of the DMCA are at the heart of content-distribution platforms’ defenses against infringement occasioned by users of the platform. (Think Viacom v. YouTube.)

Apple reminds us, however, that the DMCA gives all copyright owners — not just those who own copyrights in content — a mechanism for getting infringing works off the internet. According to this piece on Engadget, Apple has been contacting hosting providers of sites that offer unauthorized copies of the forthcoming iOS 6 for sale.

So the DMCA, acting in the name of copyright protection, provides a remedy for software providers to keep the clamps on parties who may have access to software for their own use (in this case, iOS developers) but go outside the bounds of such use and offer the technology for sale to others.

Social media legal best practices: some problems and solutions with uploading photos and tagging people

Facebook, Flickr, 500px and mobile sharing applications such as Instagram have replaced the hard copy photo album as the preferred method for letting others see pictures you have taken. Now photos are easy to take and easy to share. This easiness makes a number of legal questions potentially more relevant.

Embarrassing photos

Let’s be honest — every one of us has been in photos that we do not want others to see. It may be just bad lighting, an awkward angle, or something more sinister such as nudity or drug use, but having a photo like that made public would cause embarrassment or some other type of harm. Sometimes the law affords ways to get embarrassing photos taken down. To the same extent the law can help, the one posting the embarrassing photo puts himself at risk for legal liability.

Invasion of privacy. If someone takes a picture of another in a public place, or with a bunch of other people, the subject of the photo probably does not have a right of privacy in whatever he or she is doing in the photo. So the law will not be helpful in getting that content off the internet. But there are plenty of situations where the subject of a photo may have a privacy interest that the law will recognize.

  • “Intrusion upon seclusion,” as its name suggests, is a legal claim that one can make when someone has intentionally intruded — physically or otherwise — upon their solitude or seclusion. Surreptitiously taken photos of a person in her own home, or in a place where she expected privacy (e.g., in a hotel room or dressing room) would likely give rise to an unlawful intrusion upon seclusion.
  • “Publication of private facts” is another form of invasion of privacy. A person commits this kind of invasion of privacy by publishing private, non-newsworthy facts about another person in a way that would be offensive to a reasonable person. Posting photos of one’s ex-girlfriend engaged in group sex would be considered publication of private facts. Posting family pics of one’s nephew when he was a kid would not.

Photoshop jobs

Some people enjoy using Photoshop or a similar advanced photo editing application to paste the head of one person onto the body of another. (Reddit has an entire category devoted to Photoshop requests.) This can have drastic, negative consequences on the person who — through this editing — appears to be in the photo doing something he or she did not and would not do. This conduct might give rise to legal claims of infliction of emotional distress and defamation.

Infliction of emotional distress. We expect our fellow members of society to be somewhat thick-skinned, and courts generally do not allow lawsuits over hurt feelings. But when it’s really bad, the law may step in to help. One may recover for infliction of emotional distress (sometimes called “outrage”) against another person who acts intentionally, and in a way that is extreme and outrageous, to cause emotional distress that is severe. Some states require there to be some associated physical harm. A bride who sued her photographer over the emotional distress she suffered when the photographer posted pictures of her in her underwear lost her case because she alleged no fear that she was exposed to physical harm.

Defamation. A person can sue another for defamation over any “published” false statement that harms the person’s reputation. Some forms of defamation are particularly bad (they are called defamation per se), and are proven when, for example, someone falsely states that a person has committed a crime, has engaged in sexually immoral behavior, or has a loathsome disease. A realistic Photoshop job could effectively communicate a false statement about someone that is harmful to his or her reputation.

Copied photos

Since copying and reposting images is so easy, a lot of people do it. On social media platforms, users often do not mind if a friend copies the photos from last night’s dinner party and reuploads them to another account. In situations like these, it’s simply “no harm, no foul.” Technically there is copyright infringement going on, but what friend is going to file a lawsuit against another friend over this socially-acceptable use? The more nefarious situations illustrate how copyright can be used to control the display and distribution of photos.

In most instances, the person who takes a photo owns the copyright in that photo. A lot of people believe that if you appear in a photo, you own the copyright. That’s not true unless the photo is a self portrait (e.g., camera held at arm’s length and turned back toward the person, or shot into the mirror), or unless the person in the photo has otherwise gotten ownership of the copyright through a written assignment (a much rarer situation).

A person who finds that his or her copyrighted photos have been copied and reposted without permission has a number of options available. In the United States, a quick remedy is available under the notice and takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The copyright owner sends a notice to the platform hosting the photos and demands the photos be taken down. The platform has an incentive to comply with that demand, because if it does, it cannot be held responsible for the infringement. Usually a DMCA takedown notice is sufficient to solve the problem. But occasionally one must escalate the dispute into copyright infringement litigation.

Some other things to keep in mind

With the protections afforded by free speech and the difficulties involved in winning an invasion of privacy or infliction of emotional distress lawsuit, one can get away with quite a bit when using photos in social media. One court has even observed that you do not need a person’s permission before tagging him or her in a photo.

A person offended by the use of a photo by him or of him may have recourse even in those situations where it is not so egregious as to give him a right to sue. Social media platforms have terms of service that prohibit users from harassing others, imitating others, or otherwise engaging in harmful conduct. The site will likely remove content once it is made aware of it. (I have sent many requests to Facebook’s legal department requesting content to be removed — and it has been removed.) The norms of social media communities play an important role in governing how users treat one another, and that principle extends to the notions of civility as played out through the use of photos online.

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. He advises businesses and individuals in a wide range of situations, including social media best practices. 

Photo credit: AForestFrolic

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