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U.S. District Court Grants a Preliminary Injunction Allowing Data Harvesting on LinkedIn’s Public Profiles

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 14 August 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (“Court”) granted a motion for a preliminary injunction against the professional social networking site LinkedIn (“Defendant”), enjoining the company from preventing access, copying, and use of public profiles on LinkedIn’s website and from blocking access to such member public profiles.

 

Background

HiQ Labs (“Plaintiff”) is a company which sells information to its clients about their workforces. This information is gathered by analyzing data collected on LinkedIn users’ publicly available profiles, which are automatically harvested by Plaintiff. HiQ is entirely dependent from LinkedIn’s data.

Plaintiff resorted to this legal action after Defendant attempted to terminate the Plaintiff’s ability to access the publicly available information on profiles of Linkedin users (after years of apparently tolerating hiQ’s access and use of its data). Plaintiff contends that Defendant’s actions constitute unfair business practices, common law tort and contractual liability, as well as a violation of free speech under the California Constitution.

 

Irreparable harm and the balance of hardships

First, the Court evaluated the existence of a potential irreparable harm for the parties. The Court concluded that, without temporary relief, hiQ would go out of business and that LinkedIn does not have a strong interest to keep the privacy of its users, who made their respective profiles publicly available on purpose. Therefore, the court recognized that the balance of hardships weighs in hiQ’s favor.

 

Likeliness to prevail on the merits

The Court went on to establish the parties’ respective likeness to prevail on the merits. It considered four claims.

 

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”)

LinkedIn argued that all of hiQ’s claims failed because hiQ’s unauthorized access to LinkedIn violates the CFAA. The CFAA establishes civil and criminal liability for any person who intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access and thereby obtains information from any protected computer. Defendant explicitly revoked the Plaintiff’s permission to acquire data on its systems. According to Defendant, the CFAA is violated when permission has been explicitly revoked by the data’s provider. Plaintiff contended that applying the CFAA to the access of public websites would expand its scope well beyond what was intended by the Congress at the time it enacted the statute since, under Defendant’s interpretation, the CFAA would not leave any room for the consideration of either a website owner’s reasons for denying authorization or an individual’s possible justification for ignoring such a denial.

The Court sided with hiQ, asserting that the CFAA is not intended to police traffic to publicly available websites. According to the Court, a broad reading of the Act would set aside the legal evolution of the balance between open access to information and privacy. Given that the CFAA was enacted well before the advent of the internet, the Court refused to interpret the statute in that manner. The Court further clarified that this does not impair the possibility for a website to employ measures aimed at preventing harmful intrusions or attacks on its servers.

 

California Constitution

According to Plaintiff, LinkedIn also violated California’s constitutional provisions on free speech, which confer broader rights than those provided by the First Amendment. In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robbins, the California Supreme Court held that the state free speech right prohibited private owners from excluding people from their property when their property is an arena where constitutionally valuable actions take place, like engaging in political speech or sharing fundamental parts of a community’s life. The internet, hiQ contends, can be therefore interpreted as a “public space”, and thus be subject to such doctrine.

However, The Court found that no court had expressly extended Pruneyard to the internet. Thus, it concluded that no serious question had actually been raised with regard to constitutional rights under the California Constitution.

 

Unfair competition law

HiQ also argued that Defendant’s actions had the anticompetitive purpose of monetizing the data with LinkedIn’s competing product and that this conduct amounted to unfair competition under California’s unfair competition law, which broadly prohibits “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent” practices, including those practices that do not explicitly violate antitrust laws, but threaten the spirit of such laws.

According to Plaintiff, Linkedin is violating the spirit of antitrust laws in two ways: first, it is leveraging its power in the professional networking market to secure advantage in the data analytics market. Secondly, it is violating the essential facilities doctrine, which precludes a monopolist or attempted monopolist from denying access to a facility it controls that is essential to its competitors, by precluding them to enter the market.

The Court concluded that Plaintiff had presented some evidence supporting its assertions, but also remarked that during the proceedings LinkedIn may well be able to prove that its actions were not motivated by anticompetitive purposes.

 

Promissory estoppel

The Court did not recognize any basis for a further common law promissory estoppel claim based on an alleged promise made by Defendant to make the data as public as possible and even available to third parties.

According to the court, there was no proof of such a promise and Plaintiff did not cite any authority applying promissory estoppel made to someone other than the party asserting that claim.

 

Public Interest

Lastly, the Court considered the public interest. Plaintiff argued that a private party should not have the unilateral authority to restrict other private parties from accessing information that is otherwise available freely to all. Defendant, in contrast, argued that if the users knew that this data was freely available to unrestricted collection and analysis by third parties for any purposes, they would be far less likely to make the information available online.

The Court concluded that granting blanket authority to platform owners to block access to information publicly available on their websites may pose a serious threat to the free and fair flow of information on the Internet and that the questions related to antitrust enforcement leaned further in favor of granting the motion for the preliminary injunction.

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U.S. Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit Finds Per Se Treatment Inapplicable to Tying Arrangement in the Premium Cable Services Market

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 19 September 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (“Appeals Court”) affirmed with a split decision the tossing by the U.S. District Court For the Western District of Oklahoma of a jury verdict in a suit alleging that a telecommunications company had illegally tied the rental of set-top boxes to its premium interactive cable services.

 

Parties and procedural history of the case

Cox Communications, Inc. (“Defendant”) operates as a broadband communications and entertainment company for residences and businesses in the United States. Its subscribers cannot access premium cable services unless they also rent a set-top box from Cox. A class of subscribers in Oklahoma City (“Plaintiffs”) sued Defendant under antitrust law, alleging that Defendant had illegally tied cable services to set-top-box rentals in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act, which prohibits illegal restraints of trade.

The jury found that Plaintiffs had proven the necessary elements to establish a tying arrangement. However, the District Court disagreed, and determined that Plaintiffs had offered insufficient evidence for a jury to find that Cox’s tying arrangement had foreclosed a substantial volume of commerce in Oklahoma City to other sellers or potential sellers of set-top boxes in the market for set- top boxes. The District Court also concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to show anticompetitive injury.

 

Tying theory

A tie exists when a seller exploits its control in one product market to force buyers in a second market into purchasing a tied product that the buyer either didn’t want or wanted to purchase elsewhere. Usually, courts apply a per se rule to tying claims, under which plaintiffs can prevail just by proving that a tie exists. In this case, there is no need for further market analysis.

The Supreme Court determined that tying two products together disrupted the natural functioning of the markets and violated antitrust law per se. However, the Supreme Court has declared that the per se rule for tying arrangements demands a showing that the tie creates a substantial potential for impact on competition.

On the basis of Supreme Court’s precedents, lower courts have defined the elements needed to prove per se tying claims. In particular, in the Tenth Circuit, a plaintiff must show that (1) two separate products are involved; (2) the sale or agreement to sell one product is conditioned on the purchase of the other; (3) the seller has sufficient economic power in the tying product market to enable it to restrain trade in the tied product market; and (4) a ‘not insubstantial’ amount of interstate commerce in the tied product is affected. If a plaintiff fails to prove an element, the court will not apply the per se rule to the tie, but then may choose to analyze the merits of the claim under the rule of reason.

 

Legal precedents

According to the Appeals Court, legal precedents (Eastman Kodak, Microsoft) show that in some industries a per se treatment might be inappropriate.

In this regard, the Court cited a recent case from Second Circuit (Kaufman), concerning the same kind of tie by a different cable company. In Kaufman, the court thoroughly explained the reasons why the tying arrangement at issue didn’t trigger the application of the per se rule.

To start, the court explained that cable providers sell their subscribers the right to view certain contents. The contents’ producers, however, require the cable companies to prevent viewers from stealing their content. This problem is solved by set-top boxes, which enable cable providers to code their signals. However, providers do not share their codes with cable box manufacturers. Therefore, to be useful to a consumer, a cable box must be cable-provider specific.

After explaining the function of set-top boxes, the Second Circuit turned to the regulatory environment and the history of the cable industry’s use of set-top boxes. The court described the Federal Communication Commission’s (“FCC”) attempts to disaggregate set-top boxes from the delivery of premium cable, and stated that the FCC’s failure is at least partly attributable to shortcomings in the new technologies designed to make premium cable available without set-top boxes. The court also pointed out that one FCC regulation actually caps the price that cable providers can charge customers who rent set-top boxes. Under the regulation, cable companies must calculate the cost of making such set-top boxes functional and available for consumers, and must charge customers according to those costs, including only a reasonable profit in their leasing rates.

On this basis, the Second Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs’ factual allegations because they didn’t trigger the application of the per se tying rule.

 

Analysis

In our case, the discussion relates to the fourth element (affection of a ‘not insubstantial’ amount of interstate commerce in the tied product). Plaintiffs claim that this element only requires consideration of the gross volume of commerce affected by the tie, and that they met this requirement presenting undisputed evidence that Cox obtained over $200 million in revenues from renting set-top boxes during the class period. On the other side, Defendant maintains that this element requires a showing that the tie actually foreclosed some amount of commerce, or some current or potential competitor, in the market for set-top boxes.

According to the Appeals Court, recent developments in tying law validate the district court’s order and support Cox’s interpretation of tying law’s foreclosure element. Based on the Supreme Court’s tying cases and other precedents, the Appeals Court therefore concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to show that the tie has a substantial potential to foreclose competition.

The Appeals Court’s reasoning is based on four points. First, Cox does not manufacture the set-top boxes that it rents to customers. Rather, it acts as an intermediary between the set-top-box manufacturers and the consumers that use them. This means that what it does with the boxes has little or no effect on competition between set-top-box manufacturers in the set-top-box market, as they must continue to innovate and compete with each other to maintain their status as the preferred manufacturer for as many cable companies as possible. Second, because set-top-box manufacturers choose not to sell set-top boxes at retail or directly to consumers, no rival in the tied market could be foreclosed by Cox’s tie, and therefore the alleged tie does not fall within the realm of contracts in restraint of trade or commerce proscribed by § 1 of the Sherman Act. Third, all cable companies rent set-top boxes to consumers. This suggests that tying set-top-box rentals to premium cable is simply more efficient than offering them separately. Fourth, the regulatory environment of the cable industry precludes the possibility that Cox could harm competition with its tie, as the regulatory price control on the tied product makes the plaintiffs’ tying claim implausible as a whole.

The Appeals Court also argued that it does not have to apply the rule of reason unless Plaintiffs also argued that the tie was unlawful under a rule of reason analysis. However, as Plaintiffs had expressly argued that tying arrangements must be analyzed under the per se rule, the court did not address whether Defendant’s tie would be illegal under a rule of reason analysis.

 

Final outcome

The Appeals Court therefore agreed with the District Court that Plaintiffs had failed to show that Defendant’s tying arrangement foreclosed a substantial volume of commerce in the tied-product market, and therefore the tie did not merit per se condemnation. Thus, the Appeals Court affirmed the district court’s order.

U.S. President Vetoes the Acquisition of an U.S. Chipmaker by a Chinese Company

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 13 September 2017, the President of the Unites States, Donald Trump, issued an executive order (“Order”) prohibiting the acquisition of Lattice Semiconductor Corporation (“Lattice”) by Canyon Bridge Capital Partners, Inc. (“Canyon”). This Order is in line with a recommendation previously issued by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (“CFIUS”).

 

The parties and the proposed transaction

Canyon is a private equity fund headquartered in Silicon Valley, backed by the Chinese state-owned entities that manages industrial investments and venture capital. Lattice is an Oregon-based tech company which manufactures computer chips with both commercial and military applications. In November 2016 Canyon announced the entry into a definitive agreement to acquire Lattice for a deal value of $1.3 billion.

 

Regulatory background

CFIUS is an interagency committee which assists the President in evaluating the national security implications of foreign direct investment in the American economy. Although CFIUS is not authorized to block deals, it can impose a wide range of mitigation measures where it determines such requirements can effectively address national security issues. Where CFIUS determines that national security concerns cannot be overcome with mitigation measures, it typically recommends that parties formally commit to abandoning the transaction. In the vast majority of cases, the parties agree to terminate the transaction (or to divest, if the transaction has already been completed).

 

CFIUS’s negative recommendation

That has not been the case for the acquisition of Lattice, where the parties went forward, hoping that the President would approve the transaction despite CFIUS’s objections. In early September 2017, CFIUS recommended that President Trump block the transaction because of potential risks to national security which could not have been addressed through mitigation. Indeed, in a statement released on September 13, 2017, CFIUS clarified that the national security risk linked to the acquisition related to the “potential transfer of intellectual property to the foreign acquirer, the Chinese government’s role in supporting this transaction, the importance of semiconductor supply chain integrity to the U.S. government, and use of Lattice products by the U.S. government.”

 

The strategic relevance of semiconductors’ industry

CFIUS’s statement builds on an earlier report (here and here) commissioned by the Department of Defense. Reportedly, the document concluded that China is engaging in a long-term strategy to transfer technological know-how from the U.S. to China by increasing its investments in prospectively key technologies (robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence), many of which require semiconductors. The Report identified the CFIUS as one of the key regulatory tools available to prevent such intellectual property transfers, and concluded that it should be given additional authority to prevent potentially harmful deals.

 

Final outcome

As we have just seen, notwithstanding the negative recommendation by CFIUS, Canyon and Lattice deferred the decision to the President, asserting  that all the risks for national security could have been addressed by “comprehensive mitigation measures”. Despite this pleading, President Trump nixed the acquisition.

This is the fourth time in the American history that a President has blocked the acquisition of a US company, and the second time in a row that a deal has been blocked in the semi-conductor industry. Previously, President Obama halted the acquisition of a German semi-conductor equipment maker by a Chinese-backed company. President Obama also blocked  a U.S.-based company owned by two Chinese nationals from acquiring four Oregon wind farm companies close to a naval base. Similarly, President George W. Bush prohibited a Chinese entity from buying an aerospace and aircraft parts manufacturer.

There is reason to believe that, during the current presidential mandate, the U.S. administration will increase the scrutiny of commercial transactions in areas which might prove strategic to national interests. Technology is certainly one of the chief areas of concern.

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.

Standards and FRAND Terms in the Post Huawei World

By Giuseppe Colangelo

The judgment of the European Court of Justice (CJEU) in Huawei/ZTE (Case C-170/13)
marked a milestone in the patent war which has characterized standardization activities in the last decade. The CJEU identified the precise steps which standard essential patents (SEPs) owners and users have to follow in negotiating fair reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) royalties. Compliance with this code of conduct will shield IPRs holders from the scrutiny of competition law and, at the same time, will protect implementers from the threat of an injunction and the consequent disruptive effect on sales and production.

In primis, the patent holder must inform the SEPs user about the alleged infringement and make a specific and written FRAND offer, provided the latter has shown willingness to obtain a license on fair and reasonable terms. The exact amount of the royalty and the way in which it has been calculated should be specified in the offer. In case of refusal, the implementer must promptly propose a counter-offer that complies with FRAND requirements. If such counter-offer is also rejected, the alleged infringer must provide appropriate security to continue using the patents, either by providing a bank guarantee or by placing the requisite amount on deposit. In addition, the parties have the option to request that the royalty level be set by an independent third party decision without delay. Patent owners will instead be granted an injunction if the implementer, while continuing to use the patent in question, have not diligently responded to the first licensing offer, in accordance with recognized commercial practices in the field and in good faith, which is a matter that must be established on the basis of objective factors and which implies that there are no delaying tactics. Furthermore, with regard to liability for past acts of use, the CJEU also explained that Article 102 TFEU does not prohibit the SEPs owner from bringing an action for the award of damages or the rendering of accounts. The above requirements and considerations do not, however, deprive the potential licensee of the right to challenge the validity and essentiality of the patent at issue.

Despite the CJEU’s efforts, many shadows still loom on the horizon of the EU standard-setting community. In such a complex context, the recent activity by certain national courts in filling the gaps left by the CJEU and shedding light on some of the thorniest questions is undoubtedly welcome, and deserves the utmost consideration. Among these decisions, the UK judgement Unwired Planet v. Huawei[1] recently delivered by Mr. Justice Birss is of utmost importance.

 

The UK dispute Unwired Planet v. Huawei

Unwired Planet, a U.S. based patent assertion entity that holds a worldwide patent portfolio which includes numerous SEPs to various telecommunications standards, claimed that Huawei was an unwilling licensee. Huawei counterclaimed that Unwired Planet was abusing its dominant position by offering to license its entire global portfolio (SEPs and non-SEPs) and by demanding royalty rates higher than FRAND ones.

On 5 April 2017, the High Court of England and Wales delivered its judgement.

Justice Birss addressed several important topics. First, Birss stated that only one set of licensing terms can be ultimately considered FRAND in a given set of circumstances. From this perspective, the judge disregarded the view of those authors, U.S. judges (e.g. Robart in Microsoft v. Motorola) and perhaps even the CJEU in Huawei, according to whom FRAND may well comprise a range of terms. Indeed, although the Huawei case did not deal with FRAND pricing, yet it acknowledged that parties can make divergent FRAND offers and counter-offers, thereby confirming that there is no unambiguous FRAND point and that several distributional FRAND prices exist.

Furthermore, as a consequence of the single FRAND rate, Birss found that, during the negotiation, the parties could make offers that would not be FRAND. An obligation focused only on making FRAND offers is considered unrealistic since a process of fair negotiation will usually involve some compromise between the parties’ rival offers: if the standard setting organization demands that offers made by a patentee must themselves consist of FRAND terms, then that would condemn patentees to always end up with negotiated rates below a FRAND rate. Therefore, according to the UK Court, it makes much more sense to interpret the FRAND obligation as applicable primarily to the finally agreed terms rather than to the offers.

It seems that Birss aimed to reduce the relevance of the Huawei decision (and of the competition law, in general) also relatively to another point. After recalling the purpose of a FRAND commitment and its alleged contractual nature, the UK judgment concluded that the contractual commitments submitted to the standard setting organization (ETSI) are stricter than antitrust provisions. Indeed, since competition law fines only excessive prices, a rate can be in line with antitrust rules even if it is higher than the FRAND benchmark. In sum, according to the English Court, FRAND commitments can be enforced under contract law without recourse to competition law.

Turning to the process of negotiating FRAND licenses, with respect to the type of behavior that can be considered FRAND, the Court stated that making extreme offers and taking an intransigent approach is not FRAND. In this regard, Huawei was considered unwilling because it insisted on having an offer for just a UK license (instead of a worldwide one).

Moreover, Birss provided useful insights about the determination of FRAND rates. An appropriate way to establish the FRAND royalty would be to determine a benchmark rate governed by the value of the patentee’s portfolio: counting patents and making reference to existing comparable licenses are key steps of the determination process. In the High Court’s words, a patentee who refuses to accept those terms would be in breach of its FRAND undertaking. With respect to the non-discrimination element, the Court rejected a “hard-edged” approach capable of applying to reduce a royalty rate (or adjust any license term in any way) which would otherwise have been regarded as FRAND. On the contrary, the Court endorsed a “general” approach, which requires that rates cannot differ based on the licensee but only on the value of the portfolio licensed.

The UK judgement demonstrates that after Huawei there are still several pending questions. It is not surprising that the European Commission has recently intervened to announce a Communication in order to fill the gaps by complementing existing jurisprudence through best practice recommendations.[2]

[1] [2017] E.W.H.C. 711 (Pat).

[2] European Commission, Roadmap towards a Communication on ‘Standard Essential Patents for a European digitalised economy’, 2017, 2, available at https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2017-1906931_en.

The Italian Competition Authority Authorizes the Acquisition of Two Data Center and Cloud Computing Services Companies

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

With the decision No. 46741, published on 2 October 2017, the Italian Competition Authority (“ICA”) authorized the acquisition of Infracom Italia S.p.A. (“Infracom”) and MC-Link S.p.A. (“MC-Link”) by F2i SGR S.p.A. (“F2i”).

 

The Parties

F2i is an asset management company, owned by institutional investors, which controls two closed-end investment funds and mainly invests in Italian infrastructures. Infracom is a company which provides (i) data center and cloud computing services, which are part of the broader ICT market; (ii) telecommunication services, both wholesale and retail; and (iii) enterprise resource planning services. MC-Link is a publicly listed company which mainly offers data center services (inter alia housing, co-location and server renting).

The transaction was structured as follows: 2i Fiber, a newly incorporated company whose 80% of shares are owned by one of two of F2i’s funds, acquired the exclusive control of Infracom (and, consequently, indirect control of its subsidiaries Softher S.à.r.l. and Multilink Friuli S.r.l., and 89% of MC-Link), and of MC-Link.

 

Relevant markets

The transaction involves the information and communications technology (“ICT”) sector. Coherently with the European Commission’s precedents, the Authority determined that the ICT services market shall be considered individually, without further segmentation. The market separation in smaller divisions, for example co-location provided by data centers, would be unjustified, given the differentiation within the ICT offer itself. Indeed, the ICT offer is usually tailored upon very specific needs of the market base and therefore may change and spread to other markets very easily. The ICA specified that even by ‘unbundling’ the relevant market in smaller segments, there would be no dominance by the new entity.

The ICA further added that, under a geographical point of view, data center and cloud computing services have specific economic characteristics confined to a local market, generally defined by a metropolitan city, given that the client base tends to demand these services within 50 kilometers from its activity. This is due to the fact customers need a signal latency not exceeding certain thresholds, and this is why companies operating in this sector tend to position their facilities in the proximity of urban areas.

According to the ICA, the transaction also involves marginal effects on two other markets: i) wholesale access to fixed public telephone network services; and ii) retail telecommunication on fixed network services, where Infracom owns marginal quotas. However, such markets are generally characterized by the presence of an incumbent operator (Telecom Italia S.p.A.) holding a preeminent position.

 

ICA’s conclusions

ICA concluded that the transaction will not have an impact on competition in the markets of telecommunications and ICT services, with reference to data center and cloud computing services. The Italian Authority for Communications Guarantees (AGCOM) concurred with ICA’s opinion. The transaction was therefore authorized.

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.