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?
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.
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,
- 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);
- whether that comparison must be made for each segment of users or the average level of fees;
- above which threshold the differences between the compared fees indicate abusive conduct; and
- how a CMO can demonstrate that its license fees are not excessive.
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.
 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”).
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 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.
CJEU: Online Sharing Platforms like “The Pirate Bay” May Constitute Copyright Infringement by Indexing BitTorrent Files
By Katharina Erler
The Second Camber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on 14 of June 2017 that the making available and management of a sharing platform on which user-generated BitTorrent files related to copyright protected works are indexed may constitute copyright infringement. In particular, the concept of Article 3 (1) EU InfoSoc Directive (2001/29/EC) “communication to the public” must be interpreted as covering situations, where the protected works are not hosted by the sharing website operators themselves, but by users through a peer-to-peer network, given that the operators of the sharing platform play an essential role in making those works available. The case is Stichting Brein v. Ziggo and XS4ALL Internet BV, C-610/15.
Stichting Brein, a Netherlands foundation which safeguards the interests of copyright holders, has initiated proceedings before the courts in the Netherlands requesting that the internet access provider Ziggo and XS4ALL shall be ordered to block the domain names and IP addresses of the online sharing platform “The Pirate Bay”. A significant number of the subscribers of Ziggo and XS4ALL use the online platform The Pirate Bay.
The Pirate Bay is a website, which allows its users to share music and video files, much of which, according to the opinion of Advocate General Szpunar of 8 February 2017 90 % to 95 %, contain protected works distributed without the consent of the authors. Since Pirate Bay is a website that offers the possibility for content-sharing in the context of a peer-to-peer network based on a BitTorrent protocol, the shared files are generated by its users and downloaded, divided into segments, from several peer computers in a decentralized way. In order to generate and share these files, users must first download a specific software called “BitTorrent Client”, which is not provided by Pirate Bay. Pirate Bay allows its users to find other users (“peers”) available to share the desired file by indexing torrent files related to the video or audio files on its website. The works to which those torrent files refer may be downloaded onto the users’ computers in segments through their “BitTorrent Client” software.
The Court of first instance upheld Stichting Breins request. However, the internet access providers filed an appeal against this decision. The Hoge Raad der Nederlanden (Supreme Court of the Netherlands) noting that in the present case it has been established that (1) the actions of Pirate Bay make protected works available to the public without the authors consent and that (2) subscribers to Ziggo and XS4ALL, through Pirate Bay, make protected works available without the consent of the authors and thus infringe the copyright of those right holders.
The Hoge Raad, however, referred two questions to the CJEU: (1) whether Pirate Bay itself “communicates” works to the public within the meaning of Article 3 (1) of EU InfoSoc Directive (2001/29/EC) and if question (1) is answered in negatively, (2) whether Article 8 (3) of EU Directive 2001/29 and Article 11 of EU Directive 2004/48 offer any scope for obtaining an injunction against an intermediary, of that intermediary facilitates the infringing acts of third parties in the way referred to in question (1).
Recital (23) of of EU InfoSoc Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the harmonization of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society (InfoSoc Directive) states expressly, that author’s right of communication to the public should be understood in a broad sense and should cover any such transmission or retransmission of a work to the public by wire or wireless means, including broadcasting.
Recital (27) of EU InfoSoc Directive (2001/29/EC) states that the mere provision of physical facilities for enabling or making a communication is not covered by communication within the meaning of this Directive.
Article 3 (1) (“Right of communication to the public of works and right of making available to the public other subject matter”) of EU InfoSoc Directive (2001/29/EC) stipulates that Member States shall provide authors with the exclusive right to authorize or prohibit any communication to the public of their works, by wire or wireless means, including the making available to the public of their works in such a way that members of the public may access them from a place and at a time individually chosen by them.
Consideration of the questions referred to the CJEU
Of two questions referred to the CJEU by the Hoge Raad der Nederlanden, the CJEU only explicitly addressed the question whether there is a “communication to the public” within the meaning of Article 3 (1) of the EU InfoSoc Directive by the operator of a website, if no protected works are available on that website, but a system exists by means of which metadata on protected works which are present on the users’ computers are indexed and categorised for users, so that the user can trace and upload and download the protected work by the basis thereof.
In essence, the CJEU answered the question, whether the operators of an online sharing platform themselves commit copyright infringment by managing and indexing BitTorrent files, thereby allowing users to share user-generated and user-stored files containing protected works.
First and in view of its past case-law, the CJEU emphasized, as a general rule, that any act by which a user, with full knowledge of the relevant facts, provides its clients with access to protected works is an “act of communication” for the purposes of Article 3 (1). To determine this general rule for user-liability, the CJEU explicitly referred to its recent series of decisions on copyright infringement via links (CJEU, GS Media, C-160/15) and/or add-ons (CJEU, Fimspeler, C-527/15), which refer to protected works.
With regard to the liability of Pirate Bay – the core question in the case at hand – the CJEU – in line with the opinion of Advocate General Szpunar – noted that it is common knowledge that copyright-protected works are made available through Pirate Bay in such a way that users may access those works from wherever and whenever.
Most importantly the CJEU highlighted, although video or audio files have not been placed online by the platform operators themselves but by its users, the operators of Pirate Bay play an essential role in making those works available. The CJEU hold that by making available and managing an online platform the Pirate Bay operators intervene with full knowledge of the consequences of their conduct, to provide access to protected works, especially by indexing on that platform torrent files, which allow users to locate and share those works.
It is worth mentioning that in line with its Filmspeler decision, the CJEU in this case further broadened the scope of the copyright holders’ right of communication to the public. According to the CJEU “full knowledge” of the communication party with regard to “the consequences of their conduct”, is sufficient to hold the operators themselves liable.
By referring to the opinion of Advocate General Szpunar, the CJEU additionally found, as a main criterion for finding the operators of a sharing platform themselves liable for copyright infringement, that without making such a platform available and managing it, the works could not be shared by the users or, at the very least, sharing them would prove to be more complex.
In that context, the CJEU emphasized that the website “The Pirate Bay” cannot be considered to be making a “mere provision” of physical facilities for enabling or making a communication within the meaning of recital 27 EU InfoSoc Directive (2001/29/EC). According to the CJEU, this is not only true because the platform indexes the torrent files in such a way that the works may be shared easily, but also because the platform offers an index classifying the works in different categories based on i.a. the genre. Moreover, the operators of Pirate Bay delete obsolete or faulty torrent files and actively filter the user-hosted content.
As to the question of whether the protected works were communicated to the public, the CJEU on one hand referred to the order of reference, which reveals that a large number of Ziggo and XS4ALL subscribers have downloaded media files through Pirate Bay. On the other hand, the CJEU noted that the operators on their sharing platform, explicitly claimed to have several dozens of million users (“peers”). This large number of users can potentially and at any time access the protected works, which are shared through Pirate Bay.
As a core matter, the CJEU discussed whether the Pirate Bay operators communicated to a “new” public, which is a public that was not taken into account by the copyright holders when they authorized the initial communication. This raises the decisive question of whether the operators were aware of the missing authorization of the copyright holders. In contrast to the opinion of Advocate General, the CJEU held that the operators of Pirate Bay may simply be found liable because they: (1) were informed that this platform, which they make available to users and manage, provides access to works published without authorization of the copyright holder and (2) were aware that the operators display, on blogs and forums available on their website, their purpose of making protected works available and encouraging their users to make copies of that works. In fact, the CJEU found that, if the operators are aware of the possibility of infringing copyrights through their own conduct, managing their website, they may be found liable of infringement themselves. Under this ruling a concrete knowledge of the illegality of an individual shared work is no longer required to justify the liability for platform operators.
Furthermore, the CJEU noted, that there can be no dispute that the online sharing platform is carried out with the purpose of obtaining profit therefrom, which is clear from the considerable advertising revenues generated by Pirate Bay.
For these reasons, the Court held that the concept of “communication to the public” must be interpreted as covering the making available and managing of a sharing platform. The Pirate Bay, which by indexing of BitTorrent files and providing a search engine, allows its users to locate and share protected works in the context of a peer-to-peer network without the consent of the copyright holders. In the light of the answer to this first referred question, the CJEU saw no need to answer the second question.
It is, however, worth mentioning that the CJEU just answered the referred preliminary question of whether the managing of the website Pirate Bay is covered by the concept of “communication to the public” and therefore may constitute copyright infringement. It did not take position as to Stichting Breins’ principle request in the main proceedings that in consequence of these considerations the internet access provider Ziggo and XS4ALL be ordered to block the IP addresses and domain name of The Pirate Bay.
By Marie-Andrée Weiss
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on 5 April 2017 that the Copyright Act preempted the California right of publicity claims of Plaintiffs, former college athletes whose photographs are part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) library of images license online by Defendant. The case is Maloney v. T3Media, 15-55630.
Plaintiffs played on the Catholic University basketball team from 1997 to 2001, which won the 2001 Men’s Division III NCAA championship game. Defendant T3Media entered into an agreement with NCAA in 2012 to store, host and license the images in the NCAA photo library. The NCAA runs 90 championships in 24 sports across 3 divisions, and its library contains thousands of photographs of championship games, including some taken during the 2001 Men’s Division III championship game in which Plaintiffs participated.
T3Media sold non-exclusive licenses online for two years that allowed users to download copies of the NCAA photographs for personal use. Plaintiffs contended that such action was a violation of their California statutory right of publicity, California Civil Code § 3344, California common law right of publicity, and a violation of California Unfair Competition Law.
They filed a putative class action suit in June 2014 in the U.S. Central District Court of California on behalf of current and former NCAA athletes whose names, images and likeness had been used without their consent by Defendant for purpose of advertising, selling, or soliciting the purchase of these photographs.
The two-steps of an anti-SLAPP analysis
Defendant moved for a special motion to strike under California anti-SLAPP statute, Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16, which aims to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Courts follow two-steps when assessing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike: first the moving defendant must show that plaintiff’s suit arises from an act in furtherance of defendant’s right to free speech, as protected by the First Amendment. The second part of the assessment shifts the burden to plaintiff who must demonstrate a probability of prevailing on any of her claims.
T3Media had argued that the photographs at stake, and their captions, had been published in a public forum in connection with a matter of public interest. The district court agreed, finding that the photographs “fell within the realm of an issue of public interest” (District Court, at 1134).
This shifted the burden to Plaintiffs to demonstrate a reasonable probability of prevailing on any of their claims. Defendant claimed three affirmative defenses: (1) Plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by federal copyright law, (2) were barred under the First Amendment, and (3) California right of publicity law exempts from liability use of likeness in connection with any news, public affairs, or sports broadcast or account.
The district court did not address the last two defenses as it found that Plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the Copyright Act, because Plaintiffs asserted rights that fell within the subject matter of copyright, and granted Defendant special motion to strike. Plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed.
As Plaintiffs had conceded that their suit arose from acts in furtherance of T3Media’s right to free speech, the Ninth Circuit only examined whether Plaintiffs indeed had demonstrated a reasonable probability of prevailing on their claims, and found they had not met that burden, as the Copyright Act preempted their claims.
The copyright preemption two-part test
Section 301 of the Copyright Act provides that common law or statutory state laws are preempted by rights “equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright.” Courts in the Ninth Circuit use a two-part test to determine whether a state law claim is preempted the Copyright Act: the courts first decide if the subject matter of the state law is within the subject matter of copyright, and then determine if the rights asserted under state law are equivalent to the exclusive rights of the copyright holders, as determined by Section 106 of the Copyright Act. Parties only argued about the first part of the test.
The right of publicity claim is not preempted if its basis is the use of a likeness
Plaintiffs argued that their right of publicity claim was not preempted by the Copyright Act because publicity right claims protect the persona of an individual, which cannot be fixed in a tangible medium of expression (p. 12). They relied on Downing v. Abercrombie & Fitch, where the Ninth Circuit held that “the content of the protected right must fall within the subject matter of copyright” for the Copyright Act to preempt the state claim (Downing at 1003). Plaintiffs reasoned that their likeness is not with the subject matter of copyright and thus their state claim cannot be preempted by the Copyright Act.
Defendants argued that Plaintiffs’ likeness had been captured in an artistic work and had not been used on merchandise or in advertising. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit noted that “the “core” of the publicity right is the right not to have one’s identity used in advertising” (p. 13). The court of appeals concluded “that a publicity-right claim is not preempted when it targets non-consensual use of one’s name or likeness on merchandise or in advertising. But when a likeness had been captured in a copyrighted artistic visual work and the work itself is being distributed for personal use, a publicity-right claim interferes with the exclusive rights of the copyright holder, as is preempted by section 301 of the Copyright Act“ (p. 13)(emphasis of the Court).
The Ninth Circuit distinguished its Downing case from the case at stake, as the right of publicity claim in Downing is not about the publication of the photograph, but its use: Abercrombie used the surfer’s likeness in the catalog and had also sold reproductions of the tee-shirts worn by them in the photograph. The Ninth Circuit concluded that If the basis of the right of publicity claim is the use of a likeness in a photograph, the right of publicity claim is not preempted by copyright (p. 17).
When is a likeness misused in a work protected by copyright?
Therefore, the “crux of the issue” was whether the basis of the publicity-right claim was indeed to defend Plaintiff against a misuse of their likeness by Defendant. The court reasoned that Section 301 does not distinguish among different types of work protected by copyright, and that the pertinent issue was the way the likeness was used, not the type of the copyrighted work. In Downing, the basis of the publicity-right claim was not the publication of the photograph, but its use to advertise Abercrombie’s products and the creation of tee-shirts similar to those worn by Plaintiffs in the photograph, which were commercial exploitation of Plaintiff’s likeness (p. 19).
The Ninth Circuit noted further that it held in 2006, in Laws v. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., that “federal copyright law preempts a claim alleging misappropriation of one’s voice when the entirety of the allegedly misappropriated vocal performance is contained within a copyrighted medium” (Laws at 1141). The Ninth Circuit also cited its Jules Jordan Video, Inc. v. 144942 Canada Inc. 2010 case, where it ruled that federal copyright law preempts a claim alleging misappropriation of one’s name and persona based entirely on the misappropriation of DVDs of movies in which plaintiff performed and of which he owned the copyright. Plaintiff had objected to the use of his likeness on the covers of counterfeit DVDs, which the Ninth Circuit found to be “still shots” of the performance protected by copyright. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that Plaintiff claim was a copyright claim, not a claim that his likeness has been used on an unrelated product or in advertising. For the Ninth Circuit, a likeness embodied in a work protected by copyright is misused if it is used on an unrelated product or in advertising.
Why did Plaintiffs’ claim fail
Plaintiffs’ attorney argued at the hearing that Defendant was selling the photographs “as poster art, as desktop backgrounds, as digital goods” (video at 11:36). This is an interesting argument, as the Ninth Circuit attaches great importance to the type of use of the likeness. However, it is the consumers who are choosing how to use the images, within the rights provided to them by the license, not the Defendant.
The District Court explained that ruling in favor of Plaintiffs “would destroy copyright holders’ ability to exercise their exclusive rights under the Copyright Act, effectively giving the subject of every photograph veto power over the artist’s rights under the Copyright Act and destroying the exclusivity of rights the Copyright Act aims to protect” (District Court at 1138).
Plaintiff’s attorney recognized during the hearing that non-commercial use of the photos would be acceptable (video at 13:36). When asked by the judges to give an example of non-commercial use, he suggested editorial use, in a student newspaper or a national newspaper. While the Court did thus not address the issue of free speech, several media organizations filed an amici curiae brief in support of Defendant, to ensure that “the right of publicity is not transformed into a right of censorship—one that can be used to prevent the dissemination of matters of public importance” (amici curiae brief p. 9).
By Martin Miernicki
Following the opinion of the Advocate General, the ECJ gave its opinion in Stichting Brein v. Wullems (C‑527/15) on 26 April 2017. The court had to deal with a multimedia player (“filmspeler”), a device which allowed end users to easily stream content from online sources. Pre-installed add-ons – freely available on the internet – to the “filmspeler” contained links which connected to third-party websites which in turn made available protected works without the right holders’ consent; the multimedia player was specifically marketed for this function and sold for profit.
Articles 2(a) and 3(1) of the so-called Copyright Directive reserve the exclusive rights to reproduction as well as communication to the public in respect of their works for authors. Article 5(1) exempts certain temporary acts of reproduction from the scope of the authors’ exclusive rights, subject to the “three-step test” contained in article 5(5). Stichting Brein v. Wullems marks a further important addition to the case law involving the construction of these provisions, especially in the online environment. Relevant prior judgements include Nils Svensson v. Retriever Sverige (C-466/12), C More Entertainment v. Linus Sandberg (C-279/13), BestWater International v. Michael Mebes (C-348/13), and GS Media v. Sanoma Media Netherlands (C-160/15) (on hyperlinks) as well as Infopaq Int’l v. Danske Dagblades Forening (C-5/08, “Infopaq I”), Football Association Premier League v. Media Protection Services (C-403/08 & C-429/08), Infopaq Int’l v. Danske Dagblades Forening (C-302/10, “Infopaq II”), and Public Relations Consultants Ass’n v. Newspaper Licensing Agency (C-360/13) (on temporary reproductions).
The questions referred
The questions referred to the ECJ by the national (Dutch) court related to the perspective of both commercial and end users. It asked, first, whether the sale of a multimedia player as described above constituted a communication to the public within the meaning of the Copyright Directive’s article 3(1); and, second, whether the streaming of unauthorized content by end users with the aid of such multimedia player was covered by article 5(1) and compatible with article 5(5) of the directive.
Selling the multimedia player constitutes a communication to the public
In reference to its prior case law, the court held that the defendant’s conduct constituted an “act of communication” (para 42), directed to a “public” (para 46). Moreover, it reaffirmed its concept of the “new public”. In line with its ruling in GS Media, the court attributed significant importance to the fact that the multimedia player was sold for profit and with the full knowledge that the links provided connected to works made available without the consent of the right holders (para 49 et seq).
Streaming by using the media player is not exempted from the scope of the reproduction right
The actual question was whether the acts at hand carried out by end users could be considered “lawful use” within the meaning of the Copyright Directive. In this respect, the court distinguished the present case from its prior decisions and ruled that the temporary reproductions made while streaming unauthorized content through the media player did not satisfy the conditions set forth by article 5(1). Again, the court emphasized that this function was the “main attraction” of the multimedia player (para 69). Finally, the court noted that the streaming would “adversely affect the normal exploitation” of the copyrighted content and thus conflict with the “three-step test” (para 70).
What does the judgement mean?
The first of part of the judgement is line with the prior case law. As pointed out by the Advocate General, exempting the sale of a media player like that at issue would be too “reductionist” (para 49). Indeed, there is no significant difference between posting a hyperlink on a website and integrating that link in a multimedia player (para 51). However, some questions concerning the court’s concept of the “new public” remain. It is not clear, for instance, under what circumstances a person “ought to know” that a hyperlink provides access to infringing content; it is even more difficult to define the scope of the “for profit” criterion. In both GS Media and the present case, the situation was rather clear; yet, demarcation problems might arise, especially, if the communication does not occur as a core part of the activities carried out for profit, but is of a rather complementary nature (e.g., a lawyer posting hyperlinks on his or her law firm’s blog). Nevertheless, it seems that the (subjective) approach taken by the court in both cases towards the communication to the public of protected works strikes a reasonable balance between the protection of right holders and the interests of internet users.
This also applies, in principle, to the ECJ’s ruling in respect of streaming by end users. In this context, it should be noted that the court merely gave its opinion on article 5(1). Other exemptions or limitations may apply for the benefit of consumers, especially the “private copying exemption” contained in article 5(2)(b) of the Copyright Directive (cf. para 70). Furthermore, as the GA noted, the question whether an end user knew (or should have known) that he or she was streaming illegal content can be taken into account when dealing with personal liability (para 71). Lastly, although the decision will clearly have strong implications for the streaming of copyrighted works in general, the ECJ limited its decision to the streaming of protected works via the “filmspeler”, so that the possibility of flexible approaches in future cases is not excluded.