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)
AF Holdings, represented by infamous copyright trolls Prenda Law, voluntarily withdrew its copyright infringement claims against the defendant, an alleged BitTorrent infringer. Defendant sought to recover his costs and attorney’s fees pursuant to the Copyright Act, which provides that:
In any civil action under this title, the court in its discretion may allow the recovery of full costs by or against any party other than the United States or an officer thereof. Except as otherwise provided by this title, the court may also award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs.
The court found that all factors for an award of costs and attorney’s fees weighed in defendant’s favor:
Degree of success: There was no dispute that defendant completely prevailed in the case.
Frivolousness/Objective Unreasonableness: Plaintiff’s case was frivolous and objectively unreasonable in that it never presented any evidence (although it had the opportunity to do so) to support its claim that it had standing to assert a claim for copyright infringement. Moreover, the court found that plaintiff did not do a proper investigation to determine defendant was the one in the household who committed the alleged infringement. Instead, it simply alleged that he fit the best demographic of one who would infringe.
Motivation: The court found that it did not appear plaintiff was motivated to protect the copyright at issue, but merely to coerce settlements.
Compensation/Deterrence: The court awarded fees as a deterrent to copyright trolls everywhere: other persons or entities that might contemplate a similar business model that is not intended to protect copyrighted work but instead designed to generate revenues through suits and coerced settlements.
Furthering the Purpose of the Copyright Act: The primary objective of the Copyright Act is to encourage the production of original literary, artistic, and musical expression for the good of the public. But here, the court found, plaintiff had not acted to protect original expression but rather to capitalize on coerced settlements.
Based on these factors, and after considering the number of hours spent and the hourly rate of defendant’s counsel, the court ordered plaintiff to pay $19,420.38 in attorney’s fees and $3,111.55 in costs (mainly for electronic discovery and deposition costs). Copyright trolls be warned.
AF Holdings LLC v. Navasca, 2013 WL 3815677 (N.D.Cal. July 22, 2013)
Plaintiff photographer took a photo that Apple used in an April 2010 TV commercial for the iPhone 3GS. The 30-second commercial showed the photo for about 5 seconds. Plaintiff sued for copyright infringement, claiming Apple did not have the proper license to use the photo. She sought to recover Apple’s “indirect profits” on iPhone sales attributed to the infringement. Apple moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of damages, arguing such damages were “impermissibly speculative.” The court granted the motion.
Apple made four arguments showing a lack of a causal nexus between the use of the photo and plaintiff’s claim for profits. First, Apple contended that plaintiff proffered no evidence to support her claim that the photo itself caused any sales. Second, Apple argued that the iPhone was “well established in the consumer marketplace” at the time of the commercial which made it impossible to ascribe iPhone 3GS sales to the use of a single commercial, let alone one image in a single commercial. Third, two additional commercials ran during the time period that the commercial ran, each featuring different applications that can be used on an iPhone. Fourth, overall sales of the iPhone decreased during the relevant time period, February 28, 2010 to May 29, 2010, which is the time during which the commercial aired and the month immediately preceding and following that period.
The court found that plaintiff proffered no evidence that the use of the photo caused any iPhone 3GS sales, nor that the commercial did itself. The photo was integrated into no more than five seconds of a 30–second commercial where numerous images and various product functions were displayed. There was no evidence showing that sales resulted from the mere use of the photo. The court noted that as a threshold matter, it was plaintiff’s burden to establish a causal connection to some portion of profits before Apple would have to carry the burden of apportioning profits that were not the result of infringement. The court found that plaintiff did not proffer any evidence directly related to causation or even a method for showing that the alleged infringement actually influenced customers.
It’s important to note that this decision does not mean Apple has gotten away with copyright infringement. The decision is on the measure of damages, not liability (which remains an open question). Moreover, this case deals just with the question of actual damages under the Copyright Act. Plaintiff may yet assert an entitlement to statutory damages, which could range anywhere from $750 to $150,000.
Thale v. Apple Inc., 2013 WL 3245170 (N.D.Cal. June 26, 2013)
The copyright holder in certain newspaper articles granted to Righthaven the awkwardly-articulated rights “requisite to have Righthaven recognized as the copyright owner of the [articles] for purposes of Righthaven being able to claim ownership as well as the right to seek redress for past, present, and future infringements of the copyright . . . in and to the [articles].”
After the district court dismissed some of Righthaven’s cases for lack of standing, saying that Righthaven was not an owner of an “exclusive right” as required by the Copyright Act to maintain the suit, Righthaven sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s holding that Righthaven lacked standing.
The court found that the language used to grant rights to Righthaven did not in itself prove that Righthaven owned any exclusive rights. It held that the language in an assignment agreement purporting to transfer ownership is not conclusive. Instead, a court must consider the “substance of the transaction.” Since a separate agreement between Righthaven and the copyright holder placed limits on what Righthaven could do with any copyright assigned to it, Righthaven did not actually possess the required exclusive rights under the Copyright Act, and therefore lacked standing to sue.
BitTorrent copyright trolling continues despite Prenda Law’s self-implosion. But there is hope that courts are coming to their senses.
Earlier this week Judge Wright issued a Hulk smash order lambasting the tactics of notorious copyright troll Prenda Law and finding, among other things, that the firms’ attorneys’ “suffer from a form of moral turpitude unbecoming an officer of the court.”
Though Prenda Law’s copyright trolling days may be numbered, it is still too early to announce the death of BitTorrent copyright trolling. Copyright plaintiffs are still filing lawsuits against swarms of anonymous accused infringers, and courts are still allowing those plaintiffs to seek early discovery of John Does’ names.
But there is reason to believe that courts are recognizing the trolls’ disingenuous efforts to join scores of unknown defendants in a single action. Last week, a federal court in Ohio (in Voltage Pictures, LLC v. Does 1-43, 2013 WL 1874862) expressly recognized the concern that some production companies have been “misusing the subpoena powers of the court, seeking the identities of the Doe defendants solely to facilitate demand letters and coerce settlements, rather than ultimately serve process and litigate the claims.” Likewise, the court recognized that other BitTorrent plaintiffs have abused the joinder rules to avoid the payment of thousands of dollars in filing fees that would be required if the actions were brought separately.
So the court issued an ominous warning. Though it found that at this preliminary stage it was appropriate to join all 43 accused swarm participants in a single action, the court noted that “[s]hould [it] find that plaintiff has abused the process of joinder, the individual John Doe defendants may be entitled to — in addition to a severance — sanctions from plaintiff, under [the applicable rule or statute] or the Court’s inherent powers.” The court went on to warn that “[w]hile the Court will not automatically hold plaintiff responsible for the alleged abuses of others in its industry, it will not hesitate to impose sanctions where warranted.”
Though it has taken several years of abusive and extortion-like litigation brought by BitTorrent copyright trolls, we may be entering an era where courts will be more willing to require these trolls to show the courage of their convictions. No doubt we have Prenda Law and its possibly-unlawful tactics to thank mostly for this crackdown. Prenda had a good thing going (from its perspective, of course). Too bad it did not abide by the timeless maxim, “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered.”
Earlier this week Eriq Gardner speculated in a tweet that less than one tenth of one percent of folks have actually read the SOPA legislation. I bet he’s right. It’s good to read the statute. But what might be worse than not reading it is reading it wrongly and thereafter propagating misunderstanding.
One of the motifs that has permeated the SOPA discussion is this idea that evil (usually corporate) interests could shut down entire, innocent sites based on one piece of user generated content on that site that is, or links to, infringing material.
Some commentators, such as the usually astute Khan Academy in the video embedded below, have gone so far as to say that one little transgression by one user could bring down all of Facebook, YouTube, or Vimeo. (That discussion begins at about the 5:00 mark where the narrator purports to parse the language of Section 103 of SOPA.)
We are fortunate to have the means and motivation to rally around an issue like SOPA and make it a topic of worldwide discussion. But it turns unfortunate when some of the loudest criticism is based on misinformation. That’s happening now.
It is silly to think that one person could bring down Facebook and leave its almost a billion users in the dark. It is silly to think that Congress would enact legislation making that possible. Those thoughts are silly because they are not based on reality. One user could not cause Facebook to be shut down, and SOPA does provide content owners with a way to accomplish that.
If you take a close look at SOPA, (and of course you should) you see that this “one person taking down Facebook” conclusion is not supported by the language of the statute.
If a federal judge is convinced that a site is “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property,” then he or she can enter an injunction (according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and all the case law attendant thereto) shutting down that site’s domain name.
The present misunderstanding comes from a reading of SOPA’s definition in Section 103 of what it means for a site to be “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” That definition is much narrower than what other commentators would have you believe. Among other things, the site has to be:
primarily designed or operated for the purpose of offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting,
have only limited purpose or use other than offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting, or
be marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting.
A less-than-careful reading leads one to think that the definition brings in any site that enables or facilitates infringement, circumvention or counterfeiting. Read the definition again. Is Facebook primarily designed to rip off US property? Is it used for only a little more (i.e., does it have a limited purpose) other than to enable or promote piracy? Does Mark Zuckerberg say that is what it is for? Because the answers to these questions are no, no and no, a federal judge would not conclude that Facebook is a site dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.
If that federal judge were to so conclude, then he would likely be smoking dope. And if that is the state of affairs, then our problem is not SOPA, but federal judges smoking dope.
The fervent opposition to SOPA leads one to be reminded, like David Newhoff was in this piece, of the “death panel” hyperbole that surrounded the healthcare debate. It might be the same part of the brain at work that caused all the irrationality in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup. I’m just sayin’.
Principled and reasonable debate is awesome. Misguided arguments waste everyone’s time.
Hard Drive Productions, Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 90412 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2012)
In a mass copyright infringement suit, plaintiff served a subpoena on an internet service provider and got the identifying information for the account holder suspected of trading a copy of a movie via BitTorrent. The account holder was uncooperative with plaintiff’s offers to settle, and denied downloading the file.
Instead of simply naming the identified account holder as a defendant in the case and proceeding with ordinary discovery, plaintiff asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery,” namely, to depose the account holder to learn about:
the account holder’s involvement with the alleged distribution
his computers and network setup
his technical savvy
other users who may have had access to the computers or network
The court denied plaintiff’s request for leave to engage in the expedited discovery. It found that unlike other copyright cases in which anonymous infringers were identified, the efforts in this case “went far beyond seeking to identify a Doe defendant.” Instead, the court observed, it would be “a full-on deposition during which [the account holder] who plaintiff admits is likely not represented by counsel, may unwarily incriminate himself on the record before he has even been named as a defendant and served with process.”
Ascentive, LLC v. Opinion Corp., 2001 WL 6181452 (E.D.N.Y. December 13, 2011)
Plaintiffs sued gripe site pissedconsumer.com for trademark infringement and other forms of unfair competition. The court denied plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction. It found, among other things, that defendants’ use of plaintiffs’ trademarks as subdomains (e.g., ascentive.pissedconsumer.com) was not likely to cause confusion.
The court looked to other cases where gripe site operators chose negative words to use in conjunction with the company being criticized. Over the years, gripe site operators have commonly chosen to add the word “sucks” to the target brand. For example, in Taubman Co. v. Webfeats, 319 F.3d 770 (6th Cir. 2003), the court held there was no trademark violation by the site taubmansucks.com.
Other “suck” parts of the URL have risen above the trademark infringement fray. A case from over a decade ago found that the web address compupix.com/ballysucks would not create a likelihood of confusion because no reasonable visitor to the site would assume it to come from the same source or think it to be affiliated with, connected with, or sponsored by Bally’s. Bally Total Fitness v. Faber, 29 F.Supp.2d 1161 (C.D. Cal. 1998).
And it’s not just that these brands purport to suck. In Taylor Building Corp. v. Benfield, 507 F.Supp.2d 832 (S.D. Ohio 2007), the court found that taylorhomesripoff.com, used in connection with a forum for criticizing plaintiff, did not create any likelihood of confusion.
In this case, the notion of being “pissed” joins a lexicon of permissible gripe site nomenclature (depending on the circumstances, of course). So says the court: “Like the word ‘sucks,’ the word ‘pissed’ has entered the vernacular as a word instinct with criticism and negativity. Thus, no reasonable visitor to the [offending pages] would assume the sites to be affiliated with [plaintiffs], and PissedConsumer’s use of plaintiffs’ marks in the various domain names at issue is not likely to cause confusion as to source.”
Aside: Good lawyering by my friend Ron Coleman for the defendants in this case.
Last night I appeared in a piece that aired on the 9 o’clock news here in Chicago, talking about the legal issues surrounding isanyoneup.com. (That site is definitely NSFW and I’m not linking to it because it doesn’t deserve the page rank help.) The site presents some interesting legal questions, like whether and to what extent it is shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for the harm that arises from the content it publishes (I don’t think it is shielded completely). The site also engages in some pretty blatant copyright infringement, and does not enjoy safe harbor protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. v. Chipotles Grill of Jonesboro, Inc., 2011 WL 2292357 (E.D. Ark. June 9, 2011)
The awesome burrito place Chipotle sued another restaurant that called itself Chipotles for trademark infringement. Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion.
One of the most important factors in the court’s decision to grant injunctive relief was the plaintiff’s showing that it will likely succeed on the merits of the case. In a trademark infringement action, that analysis takes the form of the likelihood of confusion analysis.
Among the factors that a court should consider in determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion is whether there has been any actual confusion among members of the consuming public. In this case, the court found that the evidence plaintiff submitted of actual confusion was “substantial.”
In addition to a number of emails that customers had sent to plaintiff, the court looked to a couple of customer review sites — urbanspoon.com and Yahoo’s associatedcontent.com — each of which contained customer reviews that erroneously linked plaintiff and defendant. The court found this to constitute actual confusion, which could not be remedied even through reasonable care on the part of the consumers.
The case gives a good example of how companies (and their competitors) should be aware of how their brands appear in social media. Evidence of actual confusion is a powerful tool for a trademark plaintiff (and a potentially damning one for a trademark defendant). Smart companies will ensure they remain aware of how their marks and overall brand identity are being put forth, even off the beaten path on the web.
Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to email@example.com, call (630) 362-7237, or follow on Twitter at @internetcases.