Tag Archives: infringement

Court leaves thousands of BitTorrent copyright infringement defendants joined in single action

Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 – 1,062 — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 996786 (D.D.C. March 22, 2011)

One of the craziest things about the copyright infringement lawsuits that have been brought against BitTorrent users accused of trading movies over the internet is the vast number of John Doe defendants that are usually lumped into one case. After the plaintiff copyright owners file a complaint for infringement — sometimes against thousands of anonymous defendants — they ask the court for leave to take expedited discovery. Then the movie companies serve subpoenas on the John Does’ internet service providers, asking the ISPs to disclose the identities of their customers associated with particular IP addresses.

Prosecuting a case against thousands of copyright infringement defendants is an enormous task, both for the plaintiffs’ attorneys as well as the ISPs who must respond to the subpoenas. Having so many defendants risks making the case unmanageable. So one may question whether it is appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to have so many unknown defendants all in the same case. In the nomenclature of civil litigation, the question is whether the joinder of all the defendants in one action is appropriate.

In three of the BitTorrent copyright cases pending in federal court in Washington DC brought by the US Copyright Group on behalf of a handful of independent film makers, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and others argued improper joinder. These organizations filed amicus briefs in the cases of Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 – 1,062, Maverick Entertainment v. Does 1 – 4,350, and Donkeyball Movie v. Does 1 – 171, arguing that joining all the defendants in one action violated Rule 20 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court rejected these arguments, finding that joinder was proper, at least in such early stages of the litigation where the defendants had not yet been identified.

The court considered three factors when answering the question of proper joinder: (1) whether the claims arose from the same transaction or occurrence or series of transactions or occurrences, (2) whether the legal and factual questions are common to all defendants, (3) and whether joinder would cause prejudice to any party or needless delay.

Same transaction or occurrence

The court observed that claims against joined parties must be “logically related,” and that this is a flexible test, with courts seeking the broadest possible scope of action. The court held that the claims against the BitTorrent users were logically related, based on plaintiffs’ allegations that the BitTorrent protocol makes every downloader of a file also an uploader, and accordingly, every user who has a copy of the infringing file on the network must necessarily be a source of download for that infringing file. This is an interesting finding, in that the strength of plaintiffs’ allegations were based on how BitTorrent works.

Common legal and factual questions

As for this second factor, the court found that the legal and factual questions were common because the parties would be litigating the same copyright claims, and all of the claims related to the use of BitTorrent.

Prejudice or needless delay

The court said some intriguing things about the interests of the parties in making its findings on this factor. For one, it said that leaving all the defendants joined in the same action would benefit them all, in that they would be able to see the defenses that other defendants were making. The court also expressed concern in favor of the efficiencies afforded the plaintiffs in filing these mass lawsuits. The plaintiff movie studios have been criticized for filing suit against large numbers of defendants in one action rather than separate suits against each defendant (and thereby having to pay only one filing fee to start the action versus several thousand filing fees). The court saw this question squarely in favor of plaintiff. It found that forcing plaintiffs to administer multiple actions, and having to pay the filing fees in all those actions “would certainly not be in the ‘interests of convenience and judicial economy,’ or ‘secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of the action.’”

Smoked turkey company alleges that competitor infringed copyright in directions

Greenberg Smoked Turkeys, Inc. v. Goode-Cook, Inc., No. 10-621, (Complaint filed November 23, 2010, E.D. Texas) [Download the Complaint]

Happy Thanksgiving. I’m grateful for your continued support and interest in Internet Cases. It truly is a pleasure to write these posts and to get your feedback and engagement. And it’s also a pleasure to bring you news of this ultra-timely new copyright lawsuit.

Greenberg Smoked Turkeys, as you might expect, sells turkeys. Since 1987 it has distributed these turkeys with some simple instructions, comprised of three short paragraphs. You can read these instructions which are embedded in the complaint. It posted these instructions on its website in 2003.

Some time thereafter, Greenberg alleges, its turkey selling competitor copied the instructions and began using the instructions on its own website. Thus this lawsuit.

Infringement claims over instructions can be a tricky endeavor. In copyright law, there’s something called the “merger doctrine.” This relates to the idea-expression dichotomy: ideas are not copyrightable but their expression is. Simple instructions or directions may not pass this threshold: in their simplicity, they may be expressing something in the only possible way. That kind of expression does not rise to the level of copyrightability.

Court orders anonymous accused Bittorrent defendants to be identified

West Bay One v. Does 1 – 1,653, — F.Supp.2d. —, 2010 WL 3522265 (D.D.C. September 10, 2010)

Achte/Neunte Boll Kino Beteiligungs v. Does 1 – 4,577, — F.Supp.2d —, 2010 WL 3522256 (D.D.C. September 10, 2010)

In mass copyright infringement cases against alleged traders of copyrighted movies via Bittorrent, unknown defendants had no reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information held by internet service provider.

Several unknown “Doe” defendants who were sued for copyright infringement for trading movies via Bittorrent moved to quash the subpoenas that the plaintiff copyright owners served on the defendants’ internet service providers.

The subpoenas sought subscriber information such as the defendants’ names, addresses and MAC addresses, so that they could be named as defendants in the copyright litigation.

Defendants moved to quash the subpoenas, arguing that their subscriber information was private information that should not be disclosed pursuant to a Rule 45 subpoena. The court denied the motions and ordered the subscriber information produced.

The court held that the defendants did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information held by the internet service providers. It cited to a number of cases that supported this holding, each of which had found that a person loses his or her expectation of privacy in information when that information is disclosed to a third party. See Guest v. Leis (6th Cir.), U.S. v. Hambrick (4th Cir.), and U.S. v. Kennedy (D. Kan.).

In footnotes, the court also addressed the potential First Amendment rights that the defendants would have to engage in anonymous file sharing. It quickly dispensed with any notion that such activities were protected in this case, as the pleadings on file set forth a prima facie case of infringement. “[C]ourts have routinely held that a defendant’s First Amendment privacy interests are exceedingly small where the ‘speech’ is the alleged infringement of copyrights.”

Court denies motion to dismiss AdWords trademark infringement case

FragranceNet.com, Inc. v. Les Parfums, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —, 2009 WL 4609268 (E.D.N.Y. December 8, 2009)

FragranceNet.com sells perfume online. It sued several of its competitors, claiming trademark infringement and other causes of action like unfair competition and unjust enrichment, over the defendants’ alleged purchase of variations of the term “fragrancenet” to trigger sponsored links on Google results pages. These sponsored links allegedly drove traffic to defendants’ websites.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. Had this case been filed a year ago, the defendants may have argued that the case should be dismissed because the purchase of keywords to trigger sponsored links was not “use” of the marks. But in light of the Rescuecom decision from this past spring, defendants were constrained to argue differently.

They claimed that the case should be dismissed because the purchased keywords are generic terms and therefore not protectible as trademarks. The court rejected this argument, holding that it was inappropriate to determine whether the marks are generic at the motion to dismiss stage because plaintiff had adequately stated plausible trademark claims in its complaint. The question of genericness is better considered with some actual facts.

Photo courtesy Flickr user hslo under this Creative Commons license.

Trademark infringement and false designation claims not subject to heightened pleading standard

Court also foreshadows that if all they’re talking about is metatags, there won’t be much of a case.

Indiaweekly.com, LLC v. Nehaflix.com, Inc., 2009 WL 189867 (D. Conn. January 27, 2009)

In moving to dismiss claims brought against it for trademark infringement and false designation of origin under 15 U.S.C. Secs. 1114(1) and 1125(a), Indiaweekly.com, LLC claimed that the counterplaintiff Nehaflix.com had failed to allege sufficient facts to meet the standard of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). That rule requires that “[i]n alleging fraud . . . a party must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud . . . .”

Bollywood mudflap

The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut rejected Indiaweekly.com’s assertion that such claims were subject to Rule 9′s heightened pleading standard. Nehaflix.com’s allegations that Indiaweekly.com placed Nehaflix’s trademark on Indiaweekly.com to draw in search traffic survived the motion to dismiss. It was plausible that potential Nehaflix customers, when searching for the term “Nehaflix” would, upon being directed to another site containing the term and selling competing goods, conclude that the two businesses were related when in fact they were not.

It is important to note that the court assumed for the sake of the motion to dismiss that the allegations that the Nehaflix mark “appeared” on Indiaweekly.com meant that the mark was visible when viewing the site and not merely in metatags. The court nodded to S&L Vitamins v. Australian Gold, Inc., 521 F.Supp.2d 188 (E.D.N.Y. 2007), which held that mere metatag use was not “use in commerce” for purposes of the Lanham Act.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Meanest Indian under this Creative Commons license.

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.

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.

No initial interest confusion in metatag and sponsored listing case

Designer Skin, LLC v. S & L Vitamins, Inc., No. 05-3699, 2008 WL 2116646 (D. Ariz. May 20, 2008)

It’s always a bit nerve wracking to write about decisions when I know that counsel of record is probably going to be reading the post. That’s the situation with the recent Designer Skin v. S & L Vitamins case. Law blogger Ron Coleman (whom I consider a friend though we’ve never met) is defense counsel in the case, and he has been a longtime supporter of Internet Cases with encouragement back when I started in 2005, and with frequent links to here from his blog Likelihood of Confusion.

Ron’s good reputation is in apparent proportion to his lawyering skills, as his client S & L Vitamins was largely victorious in summary judgment proceedings in a trademark infringement matter before the U.S. District Court in Arizona. The case exemplifies a modern issue concerning the use of trademarks on the Internet.

Plaintiff Designer Skin sells indoor tanning products. Designer Skin is pretty selective about who it allows to resell its goods. Defendant S & L Vitamins – a web-based reseller – is not on Designer Skin’s list of permitted resellers. But S & L sells the products anyway. And it gets traffic to its website in part by using Designer Skin’s trademark in metatags, in page HTML, and as a keyword to trigger sponsored search results.

Designer Skin sued S & L asserting a number of causes of action, including trademark infringement. The parties cross moved for summary judgment. One main issue was whether S & L’s conduct resulted in “initial interest confusion” a la Brookfield Comm. Inc. v. West Coast Entertainment Group, 174 F.3d 1036 (9th Cir. 1999). The court ruled in favor of S & L, holding that Designer Skin’s arguments for initial interest confusion failed as a matter of law.

The court ascertained that Designer Skin was arguing initial interest confusion based on (1) S & L’s use of Designer Skin’s marks in metatags, HTML and as keywords, (2) higher placed search results (presumably because of the metatags and use of the mark in HTML), and (3) the appearance of Designer Skin’s marks on S & L’s web pages.

The first argument – said the court – misstated the law. The mere fact that S & L used the marks in this way was not enough for initial interest confusion. Missing was the notion of “bait and switch”. The court emphasized that “[d]eception . . . is essential to a finding of initial interest confusion.” When web users clicked on links to S & L’s pages which indicated Designer Skin products were being sold, they were taken to pages which, not deceivingly, sold Designer Skin products.

The second argument for initial interest confusion failed essentially because it wasn’t plausible. Even if Designer Skin had presented evidence (which the court found it hadn’t) that S & L was showing up higher in search results for “Designer Skin,” only “the naive few” would be deceived. And fooling any less than an appreciable number of users would not be enough for the claim to survive.

As for the third argument, the court found it impossible for initial interest confusion to arise based on what appeared on the site. A searcher could not be tricked into initially visiting a site by the look of the site itself – by that time he or she would already be there.

In short, the court held that because there was no deception on the part of S & L, there could be no initial interest confusion. S & L was using Designer Skin’s marks to truthfully inform searchers what they could find at the S & L site – authentic Designer Skin products.

The vexing linkage between access and protection in DMCA anticircumvention analysis

A couple of days ago David Donoghue wrote about the recent case of Nordstrom Consulting, Inc. v. M&S Technologies, Inc., No. 06-3234, 2008 WL 623660 (N.D. Ill. March 4, 2008). Dave’s post gives a very thorough treatment of all aspects of the case, which involve primarily allegations of infringement of the copyright in software.

The case also involved a claim of circumvention under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. 1201(a). The court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion on this claim.

The dispute arose from a rather typical set of facts. The parties had collaborated on the development of some software. Along the way the principal author of the software became dissatisfied and parted ways. Litigation ensued over the parties’ ownership and use of the source code.

Before plaintiff Nordstrom officially severed ties, he went on vacation. While he was gone, one of the defendant’s employees (Butler) sent Nordstrom an email saying that Butler needed access to the source code which was stored on a computer there in the office, in order to help out a customer. Nordstrom didn’t respond for several days, and in the meantime, Butler disabled the BIOS password for the computer.

Nordstrom sued under Section 1201 over this disabling of the password. The court relied heavily on the Federal Circuit’s decision in Chamberlain Group, Inc. v. Skylink Technologies, Inc., 381 F.3d 1178 (Fed. Cir. 2004) to conclude that there was no violation of Section 1201′s anticircumvention provisions.

The Chamberlain case draws a necessary connection between circumvention and infringement. And the presence of this connection is the vexing part of the analysis. A quick reading of Section 1201 does not reveal the link.

But the Chamberlain court held that Section 1201′s prohibition on circumvention does not give rise to a new property interest, only a new cause of action, one that goes after circumvention of methods controlling access to protected works. One can’t pursue a defendant just for circumvention in a vacuum, so to speak. The circumvention has to bear some “reasonable relationship to the protections that the Copyright Act otherwise affords copyright owners.” Chamberlain, 381 F.3d at 1202. In other words, without infringement or the facilitation of infringement arising from the cirumvention, a cause of action under 1201 does not arise. The linkage is one between access and protection.

The holding of the Nordstrom case as to the DMCA claim picks up on this link between access and protection. Summary judgment on the circumvention claim was proper because the plaintiff could not show that Butler’s disabling of the BIOS password protection on the computer storing the source code enabled any infringement. The evidence before the court was that Butler accessed the code to fix a problem on behalf of an authorized licensee of the software. Because of the license, there could be no infringement. Without any connection to infringement, under the teaching of Chamberlain, a cause of action for circumvention could not be sustained.

1-800-SKI-VAIL found not to infringe VAIL ski resort mark

Vail Associates, Inc. v. Vend-Tel-Co., Ltd., — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 342272, (10th Cir. February 7, 2008)

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

Vail Associates, owner of the incontestable service mark VAIL (which is used in connection with a wide variety of skiing and resort-related services), sued Vend-Tel-Co, the operator of the “1-800-SKI-VAIL” phone number, for infringement. After trial, the District Court entered judgment in Vend-Tel-Co’s favor, and Vail Associates sought review.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s judgment, holding that use of Vend-Tel-Co’s “1-800-SKI-VAIL” mark (registered in 2001) was not likely to cause confusion with Vail Associates’s VAIL mark (registered in 1989).

Key to the appellate court’s decision was witness testimony from the proceedings. Vail Associates’s vice-president of marketing and sales testified that customers dialing the phone number would mistakenly think they were reaching Vail Associates, but acknowledged “hundreds of uses of the letters V-A-I-L in the names of [other] businesses in the Vail Valley.” As for the descriptive term “ski,” testimony from another witness revealed ownership of no less than 23 vanity phone numbers incorporating that term. Also important was the testimony of a travel agent who fielded calls to the number 1-800-SKI-VAIL. She testified that the typical caller would ask questions of a general nature (e.g., about products, directions, lift prices, ski conditions, etc.).

Vend-Tel-Co’s main witness, trademark attorney Kenneth Germain, testified that in the context of ski resorts, the VAIL mark was a “world renowned” strong mark, but that in the context of goods and services offered by businesses in the Vail area, it was weak (being geographically descriptive). Germain further testified that he did not deduce an intent to infringe (Vend-Tel-Co’s advertising materials promoted area businesses), and that use of the VAIL mark was a necessary, good faith component of the Vend-Tel-Co’s marketing activities.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Vail Associates, the Court of Appeals was satisfied that the District Court did not err in finding that consumers perceive the VAIL mark as referring to a particular geographic location, namely, a Colorado skiing destination. It held that Vail Associates failed to prove consumers associate the word “Vail” exclusively with its resort services.

As to the likelihood of confusion factors, the court found none favored Vail Associates. It observed that (1) Vail Associates offered little evidence of actual confusion, and the testimony reflected that consumers recognized Vail as a destination, not a specific service provider, (2) despite some showing of secondary meaning, the VAIL mark was found to be “not particularly strong”, (3) Vail Associates did not prove that in creating the phone number Vend-Tel-Co intended to deceive the public, trade on Vail Associates’s goodwill or reputation, or infringe its mark, (4) the marks were not similar in sight, sound, or meaning, (5) the parties’ services were not similar, but rather “symbiotic”, and were not marketed in a similar manner, or with similar connotations, and (6) consumers exercised great care in purchasing Vail Associates’s services which the court termed “first class accommodations at first class prices” in contrast to dialing a toll-free number.

The dissenting opinion offered that: (1) the marks were confusingly similar (indeed, the additional “1-800-SKI” elements furthered consumer confusion), (2) Vend-Tel-Co intended to trade on the goodwill and reputation of Vail Associates, (3) there was ample testimonial evidence of actual confusion (namely the travel agent’s testimony), (4) the services and their marketing “appeal to exactly the same class of consumers,” (5) despite care exercised by consumers in purchasing ski packages, there was significant, uncured initial interest confusion, and (6) VAIL is an incontestible descriptive mark whose strength was proven by evidence of secondary meaning, and that Vend-Tel-Co did not take VAIL out of the ski resort services context; instead, it emphasized that context with their choice of mark.