Copyright

In a 9-0 opinion issued by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court resolved a division among U.S. Courts of Appeals today on whether an owner of a work must first obtain a copyright registration from the Copyright Office before she may file suit for copyright infringement. The Copyright Act requires that “registration of the copyright claim has been made” before suit can be brought, but the U.S. Courts of Appeals were split on whether “registration” has been made when a copyright owner submits the application, materials, and fee required for registration to the Copyright Office, or only when the Copyright Office issues registration. The Supreme Court held that the Copyright Office must grant a registration before a copyright infringement suit is filed, and submitting an application to the Copyright Office is not enough to meet the “registration” requirement.

The case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, involved a collective journalist news organization, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation, which licensed works to Wall-Street.com, a news website. Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street.com in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for copyright infringement of news articles that Wall-Street failed to remove from its website after the parties cancelled their license agreement. The Copyright Act, Title 17 U.S.C. s 411(a), states that “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until… registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” Fourth Estate had submitted an application, deposit, and fee to the Copyright Office before filing suit, but the Copyright Office had not yet acted on the application or issued registration. Some circuits, such as the Ninth and Fifth Circuits, had allowed plaintiffs in such circumstances to bring infringement lawsuits against alleged infringers at this stage, taking what is called the “application approach,” whereas other circuits, such as the Eleventh, required that registration be issued by the Copyright Office first, taking what is called the “registration approach.” Judge Robert Scola, Jr. took the “registration approach” and dismissed the case because Fourth Estate had not yet obtained a registration for the works from the Copyright Office. Fourth Estate appealed the Eleventh Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal, noting that “filing an application does not amount to registration.” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in June of last year. 

Affirming the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment, the Supreme Court unanimously held that under the Copyright Act, a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit only when the Copyright Office registers a copyright. However, a copyright owner can recover for infringement that occurred both before and after registration.

Fourth Estate argued that a copyright owner may lose the ability of enforce his or her rights if the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations runs out before the Copyright Office acts on his or her application for registration, however, Justice Ginsburg noted that the average processing time for registration applications is seven months, which would leave “ample time to sue after the Register’s decision.”

Justice Ginsburg concluded that the “Copyright Act safeguards copyright owners by vesting them with exclusive rights upon creation of their works and prohibiting infringement from that point forward. To recover for such infringement, copyright owners must simply apply for registration and await the Register’s decision.”

In a case filed by the copyright owner (Solid Oak Sketches LLC) against the NBA2k video game maker (Take Two Interactive), the issue is whether NBA players, including Lebron James, can license the image of their own tattoos.  In this digital age, video games such as NBA2K depict lifelike avatars of fans’ favorite professional sports players, complete with mirror image recreations of those players’ physical characteristics, including tattoos.  For Lebron James’ NBA2K avatar, this means that tattoos depicting the phrase “Hold My Own” on James’ left bicep, as well as the “330 Area Code” on his right forearm, are clearly visible and used throughout the video game, triggering the infringement claim.

On one side of the coin, Solid Oak claims that because the actual tattoo artists sold it the copyright to the underlying images, only Solid Oaks owns the rights to reproduce and publicly display those tattooed images, which were infringed by the video game maker.  On the flip side, Take Two asserts that Lebron James (through the NBA), allowed it to use his image, name, and likeness in the NBA2k video game, which necessarily included the subject tattoos.  Take Two also claimed that its depiction of the tattooed images were otherwise protected under the fair use doctrine.  Solid Oaks recently survived Take Two’s motion to dismiss, and future rulings in the case could have significant implications on the NBA and its players, video game companies, and tattoo artists who create the underlying images.  The lawsuit is proceeding before United States District Judge Laura Swain in the Southern District of New York.

Wednesday, 02 January 2019 21:27

Nirvana Sues Over Smiley Face

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Nirvana L.L.C. has brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against clothing designer Marc Jacobs International, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus, along with a number of unidentified “Does” over use of the well-known smiley face logo allegedly created by the late Kurt Cobain in 1991. A copy of the Complaint can be found here.

Smiley Tees - Copy

Nirvana L.L.C. includes surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, and the Kurt Cobain Estate controlled by his widow, Courtney Love.

The Complaint includes counts for Copyright Infringement and False Designation of Origin under the Lanham Act, as well as Trademark Infringement and Unfair Completion under California Common Law based on Marc Jacobs’ “Bootleg Redux Grunge” collection of clothing. For further information, see here.

It will be interesting to see the extent of protection which might be afforded to something as simple as a smiley face. :) 

Today the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning how costs are awarded under the Copyright Act.  The Copyright Act provides that a court “in its discretion may allow the recovery of full costs” to a prevailing party under 17 U.S.C. § 505.  Currently, there is a circuit split over what costs are recoverable.  The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits have held that the Copyright Act’s allowance of “full costs” is limited to taxable costs under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1920 and 1821.  On the other hand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that the Copyright Act also authorizes non-taxable costs.

The case is Rimini Street Inc. v. Oracle USA Inc., 17-1625, out of the Ninth Circuit.

Friday, 21 September 2018 20:22

Internet Speech & European Copyright Law

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The European Parliament has approved some proposed amendments to EU copyright law. The proposals must now pass a final step before becoming law.  The stated intention of the amendments is to bring Europe’s copyright protection in line with how content is being created and used in the internet age. The text of the law is not yet finalized, and the vote on the finalized text will not occur until January 2019. However, speculation has only just begun as to what effect the proposed laws will have on the freedom of the internet. Of the 24 Articles proposed in the new Directive, 2 have received attention as being especially controversial: Article 11 and Article 13.

Article 11 proposes to grant the same rights to news media publishers as is currently provided to authors, performers, film producers, and broadcasting organizations. Some commentators believe this amendment will discourage some aspects of the exchange of news articles, such as “link previews” that show a snippet of the linked article to a reader. These commentators believe this will, in turn, limit access to information and boost “fake news.”

Article 13 proposes to increase copyright liability for popular websites that host user-submitted content. The current law places most of the responsibility for avoiding copyright infringement on the user who submits the content; but the proposed amendment redirects much of this liability to the hosting website. Commentators who criticize this proposed amendment include internet luminaries who argue the new law will stifle the freedom of information on the internet. These commentators believe that if the big internet companies who post user-submitted content are also required to police that content more closely, then that policing will necessarily be overbroad; and the result will be the muffling of the freedom of speech and creativity on the internet.

It is difficult to predict what effect the laws will have on the free flow of information and creativity on the internet. This unpredictability is especially true because the laws themselves are not yet finalized. So, between now and January 2019, the proposals are ripe for debate; and maybe the proposed laws are ripe for revision.

An original work of authorship is accorded copyright protection when the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression (17 U.S.C. §102). However, a copyright owner cannot sue for infringement of the copyrighted work until either 1) “registration has been made” of the work to the Copyright Office, or 2) the work is refused registration by the Copyright Office and the required deposit, application, and fee have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form (17 U.S.C. §411).

The phrase “registration has been made” has been interpreted differently by different federal appeals courts. Some courts have ruled the phrase means that the application has been accepted and registered by the Copyright Office. Other courts have ruled the phrase means that a properly filed application for copyright has been received by the Copyright Office. These other courts find support in their interpretation from other statutes where the same phrase is understood to mean properly applying for registration. Supporters of both interpretations point to part 2) of the statute for support of their respective interpretation.

This conflict among federal appeals courts has been recognized in the highest courts, and now the Supreme Court has agreed to settle the dispute in the case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC, et al. Does the phrase “copyright registration being made” require only a properly filed application to be received by the Copyright Office? Or does that phrase require an action to be taken by the Copyright Office—either acceptance or refusal—in response to receipt of a properly filed application? The Supreme Court will soon answer that question.

Public Domain Day, January 1 in the U.S., marks the end of term of copyright protection for all copyrights expiring within the year. For the last 20 years, however, Public Domain Day in the U.S. has been largely uneventful, as there has been an effective freeze on copyright expiration since 1998. January 1, 2019 will be the first Public Domain Day since then that copyrighted works see their expiration and transition into the public domain in the U.S. 

Grumpy Cat Limited, owner of copyrights and trademarks pertaining to the cat named Tardar Sauce (which gained notoriety for its permanent scowl shown in popular memes), licensed certain limited rights to Grenade Beverage in relation to its "Grumppuccino" iced coffee.  After Grenade Beverage allegedly breached and exceeded the scope of the agreement by selling "Grumppuccino" t-shirts and other coffee products, Grumpy Cat Limited filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

After three years of litigation, a jury ultimately found in favor of Grumpy Cat Limited -- with Tardar Sauce actually making an appearance at one point during the trial -- and awarded $710,000.00 in damages for trademark and copyright infringement.  David Jonelis, lawyer for Grumpy Cat Limited, was quoted saying that it was "the first verdict ever rendered in favor of a viral meme," and that "memes have rights too."

Thursday, 22 February 2018 23:44

Son of Playwright Sues Fox for "The Shape of Water"

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David Zindel has filed a lawsuit in the Central District of California against Fox, director Guillermo Del Toro, and others, for copyright infringement of a play penned by his father in 1969 titled Let Me Hear You Whisper, regarding the recent movieThe Shape of Water .  Spoilers follow the break.

The term “substantially similar” causes plenty of confusion in copyright infringement cases.  Beyond the amorphous nature of the term, itself, courts use this language with subtly different meanings when evaluating the separate prongs of the test for infringement: (1) copying, and (2) misappropriation. It’s not enough to merely copy; to be liable for infringement, the defendant must take elements of a work that are original. Copying can be demonstrated by circumstantial evidence of access to the plaintiff’s work and substantial similarity of the defendant’s work, calling for only a probative level of similarity to support a factual conclusion of copying. However, the second prong, misappropriation, requires a qualitative analysis of the plaintiff’s work to determine the scope of copyright protection, which in turn yields a sliding, legal standard for infringement, i.e., whether the accused work is similar in terms of copying a substantial amount of protectable expression. The Ninth Circuit recently took that to the extreme in Sophia & Chloe v. Brighton Collectibles, a case involving jewelry as a sculptural work. Because Sophia & Chloe’s “Buddha Kiss” earrings were deemed to be so minimally original, and thus entitled to narrow copyright protection, the panel ruled that the proper standard for the misappropriation prong was “virtually identical” rather than “substantial similarity,” thereby re-invigorating a legal test most often used in the past for obscure cases involving multiple listing services and other content of limited creativity. In copyright litigation, the various meanings of substantially similar are definitely not virtually identical.

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