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Distribution under the Copyright Act requires more than merely making copies available

Atlantic Records v. Howell, No. 06-2076 (D. Az. April 29, 2008)

Several record companies, including Atlantic Records, sued Pamela and Jeffrey Howell after the record companies learned, through their private investigator, that the Howells used KaZaA to share files. After discovery in the matter closed, the record companies moved for summary judgment, asserting that the Howells infringed the copyright in the sound recordings merely by making them available for the public to copy. The court found in favor of the Howells and denied the motion.

The Copyright Act provides that an owner of a copyright enjoys certain exclusive rights in connection with the work including, among other things, the exclusive right to distribute copies of the work. The record companies case was a bit problematic on this point, as the only evidence of record was that the allegedly infringed files were in KaZaA’s shared folder. There was no indication that actual copies of the files had been transferred.

In support of the argument that making the sound recordings available was an unauthorized distribution, the record companies relied heavily on Hotaling v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 188 F.3d 199 (4th Cir. 1997). In Hotaling, the court held that a library which created a number of unauthorized copies of a work and made those copies available in its various branches could be liable for infringement, despite the absence of evidence that any member of the public had viewed the unauthorized copies.

The Hotaling decision was based largely on policy grounds. The library kept no records of who had viewed the unauthorized copies, thus the plaintiff could not provide direct evidence that the works were distributed to the public. The court opined it would be against sound policy for defendants to avoid liability through the omission of record keeping.

The court in this case rejected and criticized the Hotaling decision, holding that evidence of making a copy available “only shows that [a] defendant attempted to distribute the copy, and there is no basis for attempt liability in the statute, no matter how desirable such liability may be as a matter of policy.”

The recording companies argued that although the term “distribution” is not explicitly defined in the Copyright Act, it is synonymous with the term “publication,” which the statute defines to include “[t]he offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. In other words, if the Howells offered to distribute the copyrighted works to the public for purposes of further distribution, they distributed the works within the meaning of the Copyright Act.

But the court looked to the plain meaning of statutory provision granting an exclusive right to distribute, which requires an identifiable copy of the work to change hands in one of a number of prescribed ways (e.g., sale or lease) for there to be a distribution. The court found it untenable that the definition of a different word in a different section of the statute was meant to expand the meaning of “distribution” and liability to include offers to distribute.