U.S. Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit Affirms a Preliminary Injunction against Movie Filtering Service on Copyright Grounds

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 24 August 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Appeals Court”) affirmed a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (“District Court”) against the defendant in an action under the Copyright Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”).

 

The parties

Disney Enterprises, LucasFilm Limited, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, and Warner Brothers Entertainment (“Studios” or “Plaintiffs”) produce and distribute copyrighted motion pictures and television shows through several distribution channels. The Studios employ technological protection measures (“TPMs”) to protect against unauthorized access to and copying of their works.

 

VidAngel, Inc. (“VidAngel” or “Defendant”) operates an online streaming service that removes objectionable content from movies and television shows. It purchases physical discs containing copyrighted movies and television shows, rips a digital copy and streams to its customers a filtered version of the work.

 

The lawsuit

The Studios filed suit against VidAngel, alleging copyright infringement and circumvention of technological measures controlling access to copyrighted works in violation of the DMCA. At the moment of filing suit, Defendant offered more than eighty copyrighted works, which it was not licensed or otherwise authorized to copy, perform, or access. VidAngel denied the statutory violations and raised affirmative defenses of fair use and legal authorization by the Family Movie Act of 2005 (“FMA”).

The Studios moved for a preliminary injunction, and the District Court granted the motion, enjoining Defendant from copying and streaming, transmitting, or otherwise publicly performing or displaying any of Plaintiff’s copyrighted works, circumventing technological measures protecting Plaintiff’s copyrighted works or engaging in any other activity that violates, directly or indirectly.

 

The District Court found that Defendant had circumvented the technological measures controlling access to the Studios’ works and violated the Studios’ exclusive right to reproduce and publicly perform their works. The District Court rejected instead Defendant’s FMA defense, holding that the service did not comply with FMA (which requires a filtered transmission to “come from an ‘authorized copy’ of the motion picture) and (ii) that Defendant was not likely to succeed on its fair use defense.

VidAngel appealed, claiming that FMA exempts VidAngel from liability for copyright infringement and that anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA does not cover the plaintiffs’ technological protection measures.

 

Merits of the case

First, the Appeals Court found that the District Court had not abused its discretion in concluding that Defendant’s copying infringed the Studios’ exclusive reproduction right, because lawful owners of a copy of the copyrighted work are only entitled to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy, and not to reproduce it.

The Appeals Court also found that the District Court had not abused its discretion in finding that the Studios are likely to succeed on their DMCA claim because VidAngel had offered no evidence that the Studios had either explicitly or implicitly authorized DVD buyers to circumvent encryption technology to access the digital contents of their discs.

The Appeals Court then moved to VidAngel’s defenses. It found that The FMA exempts compliant filtered performances, rather than the processes that make such performances possible. Moreover, the Court found that FMA  has been created to provide for the protection of intellectual property rights, which would not be preserved by VidAngel’s interpretation of the statute. Indeed, VidAngel does not stream from an authorized copy of the Studios’ motion pictures: it streams from the “master file” copy it created by ripping the movies from discs after circumventing their TPMs. Therefore, the District Court had not abused its discretion in concluding that VidAngel is unlikely to succeed on the merits of its FMA defense to the Studios’ copyright infringement claims.

In order to exclude infringement on copyright, Defendant also relied on the fair use theory.  In determining whether the use of a copyrighted work is fair, the Appeals Court considered again: (i) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (ii) the nature of the copyrighted work; (iii) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (iv) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The Appeals Court sided again with the District Court, affirming that VidAngel’s service simply omits portions that viewers find objectionable, and transmits them for the same intrinsic entertainment value as the originals. Therefore, VidAngel’s use is not transformative (and thus it cannot be protected by fair use).

VidAngel also raised a defense related to the economic effects of its business. It argued that its service actually benefits the Studios because it purchases discs and expands the audience for the copyrighted works to viewers who would not watch without filtering. However, the Appeals Court confirmed the District Court’s view that VidAngel’s service is an effective substitute for Plaintiff’s unfiltered works and that neither the fact that VidAngel purchases the discs excuses its infringement, because any allegedly positive impact of Defendant’s activities on Plaintiffs’ prior market in no way frees defendant to usurp a further market that directly derives from reproduction of the plaintiffs’ copyrighted works. Thus, and a market harm caused by the infringing activity can be presumed.

 

Irreparable harm and balance of equities

As for irreparable harm, the Appeals Court sided with the District Court in determining  that VidAngel’s service undermines the value of the Studios’ copyrighted works, their business model, their goodwill and negotiating leverage with licensees and that the loss of goodwill, negotiating leverage, and that non-monetary terms in the Studios’ licenses cannot readily be remedied with damages. The Appeals court therefore concluded that the eventual financial hardship deriving from discontinuance of infringing activities does not outweigh the irreparable harm likely to befall the Studios without an injunction.

For these reasons, the Appeals Court affirmed the preliminary injunction from the District Court.

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