Is Embedding a Tweet on a Web Site Copyright Infringement?

By Marie-Andrée Weiss

A 5-page copyright infringement complaint filed last April in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) is being closely watched by copyright practitioners, as it may lead the court to rule on whether a Twitter post incorporating a copyrighted photograph, without permission of the author, is copyright infringement. The case is Goldman v. Breitbart News Network LLC et al., 1:17-cv-03144.

In the summer of 2016, Justin Goldman took a picture of the Boston Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, walking in the streets in the Hamptons, in New York, with members of the basketball team the Boston Celtics. The picture was of interest as it could be implied from it that Tom Brady was helping the Celtics to acquire star player Kevin Durant.

The picture was published by several Twitter users on the microblogging site, and these tweets were then embedded in the body of articles about Tom Brady’s trip to the Hamptons published by Defendants including Yahoo!, Time, the New England Sports Network, Breitbart and others.

Justin Goldman registered his work with the Copyright Office and filed a copyright infringement suit against the platforms which had reproduced his photograph. Defendants moved to dismiss, claiming that the use was not infringing because it was merely embedding, and also because it was fair use. Judge Katherine B. Forrest denied the motion to dismiss on August 17, 2017, because whether embedding a tweet is equivalent to in-line linking could not be determined at this stage of the procedure.

Defendants, minus Breitbart, then filed a motion for partial summary judgment on 5 October 2017. Plaintiff moved to oppose it on 6 November 2017.

 

The Exclusive Right to Display a Work

Section 106(5) of the Copyright Act gives the copyright owner the exclusive right “to display the copyrighted work publicly.” Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines displaying a work as “to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show individual images nonsequentially.” Plaintiff argues that “embedding” is one of the processes mentioned in Section 106(5).

 

Is Embedding a Tweet Just Like In-Line Linking?

Defendants claimed that incorporating an image in a tweet is not different from ‘in-line linking,’ which the Ninth Circuit found to be non-infringing in Perfect 10, Inc., v. Amazon.com, Inc.. In this case, the issue was whether the thumbnail versions of copyrighted images featured by Google on its image search result pages were infringing.

The Ninth Circuit had defined “in-line linking” in Perfect 10 as the “process by which the webpage directs a user’s browser to incorporate content from different computers into a single window”. In this case, Google had provided HTML instructions directing a user’s browser to access a third-party website, but did not store the images on its servers. This was found not to be infringing, as Google did not store the images as it not have a have a copy of the protected photographs, and thus did not display then, since to “display” a work under Section 101 of the Copyright Act requires to show a copy of it. This reasoning is known as the “Server Test”.

Plaintiff distinguished the facts in our case from Perfect 10, claiming that his photograph was shown in full size, that it was not “framed” and that it was featured prominently on Defendant’s websites. He argued that the thumbnails in Perfect 10 were low-resolution pictures which users had to click in order to access the full photos, whereas an embedded tweet allows the user to see the full high-resolution image without further maneuvers.

Defendants argued instead that, similarly to the Perfect 10 facts, tweets were embedded using code which directed user’s browsers to retrieve the Tom Brady picture from Twitter’s servers, and the picture was indeed framed, with a light gray box. They had, as publishers, merely provided an in-line link to the picture already published by the Twitter users, and this was not direct copyright infringement. They argued that the embedded tweets were not stored on, hosted by or transmitted from servers owned or controlled by them.

 

Meanwhile, in the European Union…

Defendants argued that an embedded tweet functions as a hyperlink, since clicking on it brings the user to the Twitter site. This case is somewhat similar to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) GS Media (see here for our comment) and Swensson cases. In Swensson, the ECJ had found that posting a hyperlink to protected works which had been made freely available to the public is not a communication to the public within the meaning of article 3(1) of the InfoSoc Directive, which gives authors the exclusive right of public communication of their works. Recital 23 of the Directive specifies that this right covers “any… transmission or retransmission of a work to the public by wire or wireless means, including broadcasting.” The ECJ reasoned that providing a hyperlink is not a communication to a new public and is thus not infringing.

In GS Media, the ECJ found that posting hyperlinks to protected works, which had been made available to the public, but without the consent of the right holder, is not a communication to the public within the meaning of article 3(1) of the InfoSoc Directive either. However, if the links were posted by a person who knew or could have reasonably known that the works had been illegally published online, or if they were posted for profit, then posting these hyperlinks are a new communication to the public and thus infringing.

Could ECJ case law on hyperlinks inspire U.S. courts to revisit Perfect 10?

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