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A Study in Trademarked Characters

By Marie-Andrée Weiss

The characters created by Disney, Marvel, and LucasFilms are valuable intellectual property and are protected both by copyright and by trademark. However, a recently decided case in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), Disney Inc. v. Sarelli, 322 F.Supp.3d 413 (2018), demonstrates that preventing the unauthorized use of such characters may not be as easy as expected.

In this case, Plaintiffs are Disney Enterprises, Marvel Characters and LucasFilm, all of which own copyrights and trademarks in many of the most famous characters in the world, such as Mickey Mouse, Hulk, and Chewbacca. These characters were first featured in movies like Frozen, The Avengers or Star Wars, and are now licensed or featured in derivative products such as comic books, video games, or theme parks. Their exploitation is highly lucrative.

When visiting Plaintiffs’ theme parks, one has a chance to meet the characters “in person.” This experience is also offered by Characters for Hire, a New York company offering, as the name implies, character hiring services. The company’s principal owner is Nick Sarelli (Defendant). Characters for Hire offers a service wherein actors dressed in costumes entertain guests during birthday parties or corporate events. For example, actors have allegedly dressed as Mickey, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Captain America and Hulk from The Avengers, and Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader from Star Wars.

The contracts Defendants provided to their clients contained disclaimer language, stating, for example, that Defendants do not use trademarked and licensed characters. The contracts also warned clients that the costumes may differ from those seen in movies “for copyright reasons,” adding that “[a]ny resemblance to nationally known copyright character is strictly coincidental.”

These disclaimers did not appease Plaintiffs, who sent several cease and desist letters to Defendants before filing a federal copyright and trademark infringement suit and a New York trademark dilution suit.

While Judge Daniels from the SDNY granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed Plaintiffs’ claim for trademark infringement on August 9, 2018, he denied the motion to dismiss the copyright infringement claim and the trademark dilution claim.

 

The descriptive fair use defense failed

Plaintiffs claimed that the use of their trademarked characters to advertise and promote Defendants’ business, along with their portrayal by costumed actors, was likely to confuse consumers as to the origin of the services.

Defendants argued that their use of Plaintiffs’ characters was descriptive and nominative fair use, and that there was no likelyhood of confusion.

Descriptive fair use is an affirmative defense to a trademark infringement suit, as Section 33(b)(4) of the Trademark Act allows “use… of a term or device which is descriptive of and used fairly and in good faith [but] only to describe the goods or services of such party, or their geographic origin.” In other words, a defendant can use plaintiffs’ trademarks in a descriptive sense, or to describe an aspect of his own good or service.

For such a defense to succeed in the Second Circuit, a defendant must prove that the use was made (1) other than as a mark, (2) in a descriptive sense, and (3) in good faith (Kelly-Brown v. Winfrey at 308). This defense failed in the present case, as Defendants had not made a descriptive use of Plaintiffs’ marks. Instead, Judge Daniels found that their ads “were specifically designed to evoke [Plaintiff’s marks] in consumers’ minds…”

 

The nominative fair use defense also failed

Defendants also claimed that they used Plaintiffs’ marks to describe their own products. Such nominative fair use is a defense to a trademark infringement suit if such use “does not imply a false affiliation or endorsement by the plaintiff of the defendant” (Tiffany v. eBay at 102-103). But this nominative fair use defense also failed, as Defendants used Plaintiffs’ marks to identify their own service, which is hiring out characters for parties, rather than Plaintiffs’ trademarked characters.

 

Defendants’ use of characters was not trademark infringement

Judge Daniels used the eight-factor Polaroid test used by the Second Circuit in trademark infringement cases to determine whether Defendants’ use of Plaintiffs’ marks were likely to confuse consumers.

While Plaintiffs’ marks are undoubtedly strong (first factor), the similarity of the marks (second factor), weighed only slightly in Plaintiffs’ favor because Defendants used different names for their characters than Plaintiffs’ trademarked character names, e.g., “Big Green Guy,” “Indian Princess,” and “The Dark Lord” instead of Hulk, Pocahontas and Darth Vader.

The third and fourth Polaroid factors, the proximity of the goods and services, and the possibility that the senior user will enter the market of the junior user, were found to weigh in Defendants’ favor. There was no evidence that Plaintiff has plans to expand into the private entertainment service industry.

The fifth Polaroid factor, evidence of actual confusion, also weighed in Defendants’ favor, as there was no evidence that Defendants’ customers used the names of Plaintiffs’ trademarked characters when referring to Defendants’ services in online reviews or otherwise. Plaintiffs could not provide a survey proving customers’ confusion either.

Judge Daniels found the sixth factor, Defendants’ intent and evidence of bad faith, to also be in Defendants’ favor, since Defendants had put customers on notice that their services were not sponsored by or affiliated with Plaintiffs by using altered versions of Plaintiffs’ characters’ names and by removing Plaintiffs’ characters’ names in their online reviews.

The seventh Polaroid factor, the quality of Defendants’ products, was also in Defendants’ favor, as Defendants’ services, being of a lesser quality than Plaintiffs’, makes it likely that consumers will not be confused as to the source of the services.

The eighth Polaroid factor, consumer sophistication, also was in favor of Defendants, as Plaintiffs did not prove the sophistication level of Defendants’ relevant consumers.

Balancing these eight factors, the SDNY found no likelihood of consumer confusion and denied Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on their trademark infringement claim.

 

Trademark dilution

Plaintiffs chose to claim trademark dilution under New York trademark dilution law, Section 360-1 of New York Business Law, and not under the Federal Trademark Dilution Act. This choice may have been made because the New York law does not require a mark to be famous to be protected, and a plaintiff only needs to prove the mark’s distinctiveness or secondary meaning.

Judge Daniels found that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether Defendants’ use of Plaintiffs’ marks is likely to dilute Plaintiffs’ marks by tarnishment. A court will have to determine if Defendants provide services of poor quality.

 

Copyright

Plaintiffs argued that Defendants had “copied and used the images, likenesses, personas, and names of Plaintiffs’ characters…to promote and advertise its services online.” Defendants argued in response that the characters in which Plaintiffs own copyrights are based on prior works that are part of the public domain.

Both parties will have more chances to pursue their arguments as Judge Daniels denied the motion for summary judgment on copyright infringement. He found that Plaintiffs had presented as evidence screenshots from Defendants’ website and videos allegedly published by Defendants which had not been properly authenticated. More specifically, they had not been authenticated by someone “with personal knowledge of reliability of the archive service from which the screenshots were retrieved,” citing Specht v. Google, a 2014 Seventh Circuit case.

It is likely that the parties will settle out of court.

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Update on EU Copyright Reform – Audiovisual Media Services and Copyright in the Digital Single Market

By Martin Miernicki

Two important legislative projects in the field of European copyright law have recently undergone substantial developments. The revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) is likely to be adopted later this year, whereas the proposed Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (CDSMD) will be subject to an extended debate in the European Parliament.

 

Background

In 2015, the Commission adopted its Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe, calling for a better harmonization of the copyright laws of the EU member states as well as for an enhanced access to online goods and services. Against this background, the proposal for a revision of the AVMSD as well as the proposal for the new CDSMD were made in 2016. The amendment to the AVMSD pursues a variety of policy goals, aiming at creating a clear level playing field for the provision of audiovisual content in the EU, especially addressing online services. The CDSMD contains provisions on the (collective) licensing of certain works and exceptions and limitation to rights of right holders provided for in other European directives on copyright, among these Directive 2001/29/EC. Title IV’s Art 11 and 13 of the proposed directive appear to be most controversial, providing for a right of publishers of press publications in the digital use of their press publications (so-called “link tax”) and an increased obligation of certain platform operators to monitor the content uploaded to their sites (so-called “upload filter”). Both reform projects have been intensely discussed and have yet to be adopted.

 

Current state of the reform projects

On 26 April 2018, the Commission announced a breakthrough in the negotiations with the Council and the European Parliament about the revision of the AVMSD, stating that a “preliminary political agreement” had been reached. This agreement was subsequently confirmed in June 2018. As regards the CDSMD, the Council’s permanent representatives committee agreed to its position on the draft directive on 25 May 2018 for the negotiations with the European Parliament. On 20 June 2018, the Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee voted to start the negotiations, upholding controversial parts of the proposed CDSMD. However, the European Parliament rejected this decision in early July.

 

What can be expected?

Against the background of these developments, the revised AVMSD is likely to be adopted in autumn or winter, starting the period for the transposition of its rules into national law. It should be noted that Brexit also affects audiovisual media services, and it caused the Commission to publish a notice to stakeholders on this matter earlier this year. The future development of the CDSMD is less clear, as the proposal might be amended as a result of the upcoming debate. At this point, it is expected that the European Parliament will discuss the issue in September.

Full-work Licensing Requirement 100 Percent Rejected: Second Circuit Rules in Favor of Fractional Licensing

By Martin Miernicki

On 19 December 2017, the Second Circuit handed down a summary order on the BMI Consent Decree in the dispute between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). The court ruled that the decree does not oblige BMI to license the works in its repertoire on a “full-work” basis.

 

Background[1]

ASCAP and BMI are the two largest U.S. collective management organizations (CMOs) which license performance rights in musical works. Both organizations are subject to so-called consent decrees which entered into force 2001 and 1994, respectively. In 2014, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division announced a review of the consent decrees to evaluate if these needed to be updated. The DOJ concluded the review in August 2016, issuing a closing statement. The DOJ declared that it did not intend to re-negotiate and to amend the decrees, but rather stated that it interpreted these decrees as requiring ASCAP and BMI to license their works on a “full-work” or “100 percent” basis. Under this rule, the CMOs may only offer licenses that cover all performance rights in a composition; thus, co-owned works to which they only represent a “fractional” interest cannot be licensed. In reaction to this decision, BMI asked the “rate court” to give its opinion on this matter. In September 2016, Judge Stanton ruled against the full-work licensing requirement, stating that the decree “neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.”

 

Decision of the court

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed Judge Stanton’s ruling and held that fractional licensing is compatible with the BMI Consent Decree. First, referencing the U.S. Copyright Act – 17 U.S.C. § 201(d) –, the court highlighted that the right of public performance can be subdivided and owned separately. Second, as fractional licensing was common practice at the time the decree was amended in 1994, its language does indicate a prohibition of this practice. Third, the court rejected the DOJ’s reference to Pandora Media, Inc. v. ASCAP, 785 F. 3d 73 (2d Cir. 2015) because this judgment dealt with the “partial” withdrawal of rights from the CMO’s repertoire and not with the licensing policies in respect of users. Finally, the Second Circuit considered it to be irrelevant that full-work licensing could potentially advance the procompetitive objectives of the BMI Consent Decree; rather, the DOJ has the option to amend the decree or sue BMI in a separate proceeding based on the Sherman Act.

 

Implications of the judgement

The ruling of the Second Circuit is undoubtedly a victory for BMI, but also for ASCAP, as it must be assumed that ASCAP’s decree – which is very similar to BMI’s decree – can be interpreted in a similar fashion. Unsurprisingly, both CMOs welcomed the decision. The DOJ’s reaction remains to be seen, however. From the current perspective, an amendment of the decrees appears to be more likely than a lengthy antitrust proceeding under the Sherman Act; the DOJ had already partly toned down its strict reading of the decree in the course of the proceeding before the Second Circuit. Yet, legislative efforts might produce results and influence the further developments before a final decision is made. A recent example for the efforts to update the legal framework for music licensing is the “Music Modernization Act” which aims at amending §§ 114 and 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act.

[1] For more information on the background see Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments Issue No. 3-4/2016 and Issue No. 5/2016.

 

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?

Remote Recording, Cloud Services, and Private Copying: ECJ Rules on Services by Third Parties

By Martin Miernicki

On 29 November 2017, the ECJ gave its opinion in VCAST v. RTI (C-265/16). The court ruled on the compatibility of an online service (offered by VCAST) – which provides users with cloud storage space for free-to-air terrestrial programs of TV organizations – with Directive 2001/29/EC (the so-called Copyright Directive), and in particular with its article 5(2)(b) (the so-called private copying exception). Upon the selection of the user, the service autonomously picks up the television signal and records the indicated content in the “cloud”.

 

Background & questions referred

The case involved questions relating to the private copying exception as well as the concept of the communication to the public, contained in article 3 of the Copyright Directive. The ECJ has repeatedly given its opinion on both matters. Relevant case law includes Padawan v. SGAE (C-467/08), ACI Adam v. Stichting de Thuiskopie (C-435/12), and Copydan Båndkopi v. Nokia Danmark (C-463/12) (on the private copying exception), as well as ITV Broadcasting v. TVCatchup (C-607/11), Reha Training v. GEMA (C-117/15), and AKM v. Zürs.net (C-138/16) (on the communication to the public). In essence, the referring (Italian) court asked the ECJ whether an online cloud service as described above was compatible with the Copyright Directive.

 

The decision of the court

The ECJ reached the same result as proposed by Advocate General (AG) Szpunar in his opinion and held VCAST’s cloud service is incompatible with EU law. First of all, the court recalled its case law and stated that natural persons can benefit from the private copying exception also in situations where the copying services are provided by a third party (para 35). However, in the opinion of the court, the service at issue did not merely assist users in making lawful reproductions but also, by picking up the television signals, provided access to the protected content (para 38). For this reason, the services in question also qualified as a communication to the public within the meaning of article 3 of the Copyright Directive. Since this act required the consent of the rightholders, the provision of the services at issue infringed their exclusive rights and was hence not permissible under EU law.

 

What does the judgment mean?

The judgement gave the court the opportunity to reconfirm and clarify its opinion on two recurring issues of the more recent copyright case law: First, the lawfulness of the source of the reproduction which is made under the private copying exception; second, the concept of the communication to the public. With regard to the former, the ECJ held that the private copying exception cannot be invoked where the third party provides access to the protected content (para 37). In principle, this is in line with the prior case law of the court. With regard to the latter, the court referred to the principles established in ITV Broadcasting, holding that acts of communication to the public – different than the original transmission – carried out under specific technical conditions using different means of transmissions are subject to the right holder’s consent (para 48). In such circumstances, the new public criterion is irrelevant (para 50). Obviously, the principles established in AKM were, as indicated by the AG, not relevant for the court (para 52-56 of the AG’s opinion).

In this light, providers of online services will have to assess whether they merely enable natural persons to obtain private copies or whether they also provide access to protected content. As illustrated by the court’s decision, this requires a delineation of the different exclusive rights involved. In this context, it is noticeable that the answer given to the national court appears to be broader than might be expected from the grounds of the judgement. The ECJ stated that cloud services as described above conflict with the Copyright Directive where the provider “actively [involves] itself in the recording, without the right holder’s consent”. Apparently, one way to be “actively involved” in the recording is to communicate the work to the public, thereby providing access to the copyrighted content. However, other ways are also conceivable. For instance, it is unlikely that the private copying exception applies to cases where the service provider takes the initiative to make reproductions, or defines its object and modalities (para 25 of the AG’s opinion). It will be up to the court to shed further light on such questions in future cases.

ECJ Rules on Excessive Licensing Fees for Copyrights

By Martin Miernicki

On 14 September 2017 the Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) handed down its decision in AKKA/LAA v. Konkurences padome (C-177/16). The case originated in a fine imposed on the Latvian collective management organization (CMO) AKKA/LAA – which possesses a legal monopoly in Latvia – by the national competition authority. The authority asserted that the CMO had abused its dominant position by charging excessively high license rates. In the following, the Latvian Supreme Court made a reference for a preliminary ruling, asking the ECJ, inter alia,[1]

  1. whether it is appropriate to compare the rates charged by a national CMO to those rates charged by CMOs in neighboring and other member states, adjusted in accordance with the purchasing power parity index (PPP index);
  2. whether that comparison must be made for each segment of users or the average level of fees;
  3. above which threshold the differences between the compared fees indicate abusive conduct; and
  4. how a CMO can demonstrate that its license fees are not excessive.

 

Background

Article 102(a) of the TFEU declares the imposition of “unfair purchase or selling prices” as an abuse of a dominant position. The seminal case for the interpretation of this provision is United Brands v. Commission (case 27/76). Furthermore, the ECJ has repeatedly been asked to gives its opinion on this matter in the context of copyright management services. Relevant case law includes Ministère public v. Tournier (case 395/87), Kanal 5 v. STIM (C-52/07) and OSA v. Léčebné lázně Mariánské Lázně (C‑351/12). In contrast, U.S. antitrust doctrine does not, as a principle, recognize excessive pricing as an antitrust violation.

 

Decision of the court

The ECJ largely referred to the opinion of the Advocate General and confirmed that a comparison of fees charged in other member states, relying on the PPP index, may be used to substantiate the excessive nature of license rates charged by a CMO. However, the reference member states must be selected according to “objective, appropriate and verifiable” criteria (e.g., consumption habits, economic factors and cultural background) and the comparison must be made on a consistent basis (e.g., similar calculation methods). For this purpose, it is, in principle, permissible to refer to a specific segment of users if indicated by the circumstances of the individual case (paras 31-51). With regard to the level license fees, the ECJ ruled that there is no minimum threshold above which a license fee can be considered abusive; yet, the differences between the compared fees must be both significant (not a minor deviation) and persistent (not a temporary deviation). CMOs can justify their rates by reference to objective dissimilarities between the compared member states, such as differing national regulatory regimes (para 52-61).

 

Implications of the decision

The court reconfirmed its approach taken in the former decisions which introduced the comparison of fees charged in different member states as well as the “appreciably higher” standard. In the case at hand, the court further elaborated on this general concept by providing new criteria for the analysis which should assist competition authorities and courts in assessing excessive pricing under the EU competition rules. Clearly, however, it will still be challenging to apply those guidelines in practice. Furthermore, it seems that the ECJ does not consider the method of comparing license fees in other member states to be the only method for the purposes of Article 102(a) of the TFEU (see also paras 43-45 of the AG’s opinion); this might be of special relevance in cases not related to CMOs. In this connection, it is noteworthy that the ECJ expressly permitted authorities to consider the relation between the level of the fee and the amount actually paid to the right holders (hence, the CMO’s administrative costs) (paras 58-60).

Lastly – although the finding of abusive pricing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in European competition law practice – the decision supplements the case law on CMOs which is especially important since the rules of the Collective Management Directive 2014/26/EU (CMD) are relatively sparse in relation to users. Nevertheless, it should be noted that said directive contains additional standards for the CMOs’ fee policies. Article 16(2) states that tariffs shall be “reasonable”, inter alia, in relation to the economic value of the use of the licensed rights in trade and the economic value of the service provided by CMOs. These standards may be, however, overseen by national authorities (CMD article 36) which are not necessarily competition authorities. A coordinated application of the different standards by the competent authorities would be desirable in order to ensure the coherence of the regulatory regime.

[1] Focus is put here on the most important aspects of the decision.

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.