Is a DMCA subpoena to identify unknown infringers valid if the infringement has ended?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) is well-known for its notice and takedown provisions. But the DMCA provides a number of other interesting mechanisms, including a procedure for potential copyright plaintiffs to send subpoenas to online service providers to learn the identity of users who posted infringing content to that service. A recent case involving some subpoenas that a copyright owner sent to eBay examines the relationship between the notice and takedown procedures on one hand, and the subpoena mechanism on the other. The question before the court was whether a DMCA subpoena is valid if, by the time it is served on the online service provider, that online service provider has already removed or has disabled access to that content.

Section 512(h) (17 U.S.C. 512(h)) spells out the DMCA subpoena process, and how it relates to the notice and takedown provisions. An online service provider must act expeditiously to identify the user who uploaded infringing content “[u]pon receipt of the issued subpoena, either accompanying or subsequent to the receipt of a [takedown request].” That plain language seems straightforward — an online service provider has to provide the identifying information in response to any subpoena it receives either with or subsequent to a takedown notice.

But it was not so straightforward in a 2011 case, where some confusing facts made for some confusing law. In Maximized Living, Inc., v. Google, Inc., 2011 WL 6749017 (N.D. Cal. December 22, 2011), the copyright holder sent a subpoena to the online service provider after the copyright holder had sent a DMCA takedown notice. That would appear to comport with the statute — the subpoena came subsequent to the takedown notice. But the problem in that case was that the takedown notice was not valid. By the time it was sent, the alleged infringer had already removed the infringing content. From that, the Maximized Living case pronounced that “the subpoena power of §512(h) is limited to currently infringing activity and does not reach former infringing activity that has ceased and thus can no longer be removed or disabled.”

In the recent case of In re DMCA Subpoena to eBay, Inc., eBay, as the recipient of subpoenas to identify some of its users, picked up on the Maximized Living holding to argue that it did not have to answer the subpoenas because it had already taken down the offending content pursuant to previous takedown notices. Since the subpoenas did not relate to “currently infringing activity,” eBay argued à la Maximized Living, that the subpoenas had not been issued under §512(h)’s power and were therefore invalid.

The court rejected eBay’s argument. The key distinction in this case was that, unlike in Maximized Living, the takedown notices in this case, when they issued, related to content that was on the eBay servers at the time the takedown notices were issued. Granted, some of those takedown notices went all the way back to early 2012 (query whether the subpoena should be valid if it would only uncover the identity of an infringer for whom the 3-year copyright statute of limitations had passed; but that wasn’t before the court).

So to simply state the rule in this case — for a DMCA subpoena to be valid, it has to relate to a valid DMCA takedown notice. That DMCA takedown notice is not valid unless it was served at a time when infringing content resided on the service. An online service provider cannot avoid the obligation of responding to a subpoena by taking down the content, thereby causing there to be no “currently infringing activity”. Such a rule would, as the court observed, cause the online service provider’s safe harbor protection to also shield the alleged infringer from being identified. That would indeed be an odd application of the DMCA’s protection. The court in this case avoided that outcome.

In re DMCA Subpoena to eBay, Inc., 2015 WL 3555270 (S.D. Cal. June 5, 2015).

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping clients in matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases dot com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Galvez under this Creative Commons license.

Microsoft letter to GitHub over DRM-free music software is not the first copyright-ironic action against an intermediary

TorrentFreak has reported that Microsoft demanded that GitHub take the code repository of an app that provides access to unprotected Xbox Music tracks. Some are calling it ironic, given that Microsoft is offering access to DRM-free music through its API.

The situation is reminiscent (though not legally identical) to the weirdness we observed way back in 2006 when YouTube asked TechCruch to take down a tool that allowed people to download video clips. We recognized early on that YouTube was a copyright renegade. So it was surprising that it would take such an aggressive tactic toward purveyors of software that would make use of copyrighted works easier.

The Microsoft of today is certainly not the YouTube of 2006. So naturally its interests are different. But comparing the two scenarios yields the common conundrum of how one company that wants to more smoothly make content available deals with other technologies and platforms that do the same thing, but cut out the main monetizing opportunity.

It could be a phenomenon of copyright’s outdatedness. Both YouTube and Microsoft took action against others who were distributing technologies that touched on infringement by means of making copies of the works. That will likely remain an important protection under copyright law even after meaningful reform. But what is really at stake is the right to access content. If that were a meaningful right under the Copyright Act, companies would be less likely to take enforcement actions that appear on the surface to be ironic.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media.

Is the Aereo decision a setback for innovation?

One of the big questions preceding the Supreme Court’s decision in the Aereo case earlier this week was whether a holding against Aereo would put cloud services into such a legally precarious position that the innovation and investment climate would chill. While the decision clearly makes Aereo’s use of its technology illegal, one should not be too quick to foretell a drastic impact on all hosted services. Here are some reasons why.

What cloud?

Let’s be clear about what we mean by “the cloud” in this context. Aereo’s technical model – which the court found to infringe copyright – captured over-the-air television content using one tiny antenna per customer, transcoded that content into one copy per customer, which Aereo stored and then streamed on-demand to the customer. The court found that model bore an “overwhelming likeness to the cable companies targeted by the [1976 Copyright Act]” to an extent that Aereo was “for all practical purposes a traditional cable system.” Aereo’s technological attempts such as the one-copy-per-customer method that it used to distinguish itself from traditional cable services were immaterial to the court. Aereo looked like a cable company, so the court treated it as one, with all the copyright consequences that go along with that status.

Aereo was a cloud service inasmuch as it stored the TV content and served it to its users when those users initiated the performances. It was the cable-like functions that got it into trouble, not necessarily the cloud-provider functions. That arguably leaves the rest of what we consider cloud services – online collaboration tools, centralized communications systems, most hosted applications, and the like – outside the scope of the court’s decision. Most software-as-a-service models, whether to the consumer or at the enterprise level, are unlike cable systems and thus likely stand clear of the sweep of the Aereo sickle.

The technology could live on.

One must also be sure to recognize that the court’s decision did not kill the technology altogether, but instead killed the use of the technology in the hands of one who does not have ownership or license to the content being delivered. Since the court found that Aereo’s service was “substantially similar” to cable systems, Aereo, its successors, or other players in the space could look to monetize the technology while paying the compulsory licenses that Section 111 of the Copyright Act spells out in dizzying complexity. Or the broadcasters and other content stakeholders could acquire Aereo-like technology and use it to supplement the other means of content delivery currently at play. In either scenario, the needs for investment and innovation in providing infrastructure (as well as the need for clarity on network neutrality) remain firmly intact.

The real likely effect.

This is not to say that Aereo will have no effect on development of technology in areas outside the particular facts of the case. The court’s decision expands the class of online intermediaries who may be liable for direct copyright infringement. In that respect, the case differs from other important technology-provider copyright cases like the Betamax case, Grokster and the Cablevision case. In those cases, the main question before the courts was whether the providers were secondarily liable for the infringement committed by their users. In Aereo, however, the question was whether Aereo itself was liable for infringement committed by providing the technology to others. The Supreme Court held that Aereo was a direct infringer because its functionality so closely resembled a cable company.

So the court has given copyright plaintiffs some new, additional angles to consider when pursuing infringement litigation against technology providers. Does the technology so resemble the technical model of a cable delivery system, particularly from the perspective of the end user, such that it de facto publicly performs the works delivered by the system? If so, then the Aereo test forbids it. Moreover, the case fuzzies the relatively bright line that began to be drawn almost 20 years ago with Religious Technology Center v. Netcom, requiring that for an internet intermediary to be liable for direct infringement, it need undertake some volitional conduct in furtherance of the infringement. That fuzziness will no doubt embolden some plaintiffs who otherwise would not have seen the potential for a cause of action against future defendant-innovators.

In reality, few platforms are likely to actually get “Aereoed” in litigation. The ones at greatest risk will be those that facilitate access to streaming content provided by others. But the fact that ultimate liability may not lie against a provider will likely do little to stop aggressive copyright plaintiffs from trying out the theory against all forms of remote storage providers. That’s the problem Justice Scalia identified in his dissent when he said the decision “will sow confusion for years to come.” Let’s hope that’s mostly an overstatement.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

No infringement means no injunction in software dispute

Former members of a limited liability company, who participated in the development of four pieces of software while a part of the company, sued the LLC and its remaining members for copyright infringement. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs’ infringement claims must fail because defendants had not used the allegedly copyrighted software outside of the licensing agreements the LLC signed while plaintiffs were still with the company. The court granted defendants’ summary judgment motion.

Plaintiffs agreed that the software had not been used outside the license agreements with companies the LLC had entered while plaintiffs were with the company. But plaintiffs still sought injunctive relief with respect to their infringement claims.

To demonstrate copyright infringement, plaintiffs were required to prove “(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.” Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 362, 111 S.Ct. 1282, 113 L.Ed.2d 358 (1991)). In this case, plaintiffs essentially conceded that the second element of the Feist test was not met.

The court cited Arista Records, LLC v. Doe 3, 604 F.3d 110, 117 (2d. Cir.2010)) to note that in the second Feist element, “the word copying is shorthand for the infringing of any of the copyright owner’s five exclusive rights described in 17 U.S.C. § 106”. Those exclusive rights allow the owner to: (1) reproduce the copyrighted work; (2) prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) distribute copies of the copyrighted work; (4) perform the work publicly; and (5) display the copyrighted work. Because plaintiffs conceded that defendants had not used the software outside of the license agreements with its customers that were made while plaintiffs were still a part of the LLC, defendants had not infringed on plaintiffs purported exclusive rights.

Plaintiffs nevertheless claimed that they were entitled to injunctive relief to prevent defendants’ potential future use of the copyrighted software. Plaintiffs were required to show that: (1) they had suffered an irreparable injury; (2) that remedies at law were inadequate to compensate that injury; (3) that the balance of hardships warranted a remedy in equity in favor of plaintiffs; and (4) that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.

Here, plaintiffs conceded that they had not suffered an injury – the copyrights had not been infringed. Instead, plaintiffs were arguing for a prospective injunction to prevent defendants from infringing upon a copyright for which there was no evidence defendants intended to infringe. The court denied the injunction, holding that a prospective injunction could be entered only on the basis of current, ongoing conduct that threatened future harm.

Brightharbour Consulting, LLC v. Docuconsulting, LLC, 2014 WL 1415186 (N.D.Ga. April 14, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago, advising clients in technology transactions, intellectual property disputes, and other matters involving the internet and new media.

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