A relatively unknown copyright infringement case is starting to attract more attention.
In October 2010, self-described “gay ethnic adult company” Flava Works sued Marques Rondale Gunter, who owns and operates myVidster, a “social video bookmarking” site for copyright and trademark infringement. Now the case is in front of the Seventh Circuit, and it has attracted amicus briefs from heavyweights like the MPAA, Google and Facebook, and perennial amici Public Knowledge and the EFF.
While the appeal raises several important issues, it is one in particular that has attracted much of the attention online. Can embedding a video infringe on copyright?
Flava Works in the Lower Court
Last May, the Northern District Court of Illinois ruled on Gunter’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The court dismissed all the claims except the contributory copyright infringement claim. It found that Flava Works had plead sufficient knowledge. Said the court, “The knowledge element for contributory copyright infringement is met in those cases where a party has been notified of specific infringing uses of its technology and fails to act to prevent future such infringing uses, or willfully blinds itself to such infringing uses.” myVidster’s receipt of multiple DMCA takedown notices involving the same files and users triggered a duty for it to take steps to prevent future infringing uses.
Later that summer, the Illinois court granted Flava Works request for a preliminary injunction against Gunter, concluding that it was likely to succeed on the merits of its claim of contributory copyright infringement.1 Notably, it rejected Gunter’s contention that the site was protected by the DMCA’s safe harbor. It primarily based this decision on the site’s lack of a repeat infringer policy — one of the prerequisites for safe harbor protection — and this decision seemed an easy one. Said the court, “It is difficult for us to understand how defendants can argue with a straight face that they have adopted and reasonably implemented a ‘repeat infringer’ policy.”
Gunter moved for a reconsideration of the preliminary injunction, which the court denied. The court explained, “The vast majority of myVidster users have not created backup copies of videos on the site, but have directed myVidster to “embed” video clips on the site through the posting/bookmarking process. It is this action, to which defendants also refer as “inline linking,” that is the focus of the instant motion to reconsider.” Gunter argued that the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Perfect 10 v. Amazon should compel a different result.
In Perfect 10, the Court was faced with the question of whether Google’s image search, which used in-line linking to display full-size images from other sites in its results, directly infringed the plaintiff’s display right. After interpreting the Copyright Act’s language, the Ninth Circuit adopted what the District Court called the “server test” — infringement of the display right is only possible when the image resides on the web site’s own servers, not when the image is only displayed in-line but resides on another web site’s computers.
Flava Works disagreed with Perfect 10:
We decline to apply Perfect 10 to this case. The Ninth Circuit’s decision is not binding on this court; moreover, it is highly fact-specific and distinguishable. Defendants assert that the cases involve “essentially the same technology.” Both cases may involve inline linking, but the processes are quite different. The relevant comparison is between the conduct of Google and the conduct of myVidster’s users, not between Google and myVidster. In response to a search query, Google’s image search engine uses an automated process to display search results through inline linking. In contrast, myVidster’s users do not employ any sort of automation to determine which videos they bookmark; rather, they personally select and submit videos for inline linking/embedding on myVidster. (And many of those hand-picked videos are infringing.) Google’s use of inline linking is neutral to the content of the images; that of myVidster’s users is not.
To the extent that Perfect 10 can be read to stand for the proposition that inline linking can never cause a display of images or videos that would give rise to a claim of direct copyright infringement, we respectfully disagree. In our view, a website’s servers need not actually store a copy of a work in order to “display” it. The fact that the majority of the videos displayed on myVidster reside on a third-party server does not mean that myVidster users are not causing a “display” to be made by bookmarking those videos. The display of a video on myVidster can be initiated by going to a myVidster URL and clicking “play”; that is the point of bookmarking videos on myVidster—a user can navigate to a collection of myVidster videos and does not have to go to each separate source site to view them.
Gunter persisted and appealed Flava Works to the Seventh Circuit.
Can Embedding Infringe Copyright?
One of the major issues in the appeal — and the one that has attracted the attention of Google, Facebook, and the MPAA — is whether embedding videos violates a copyright owner’s public performance right. Secondary liability requires direct infringement, and the parties dispute the lower court’s conclusion that myVidster’s users, who add such embedded links to the myVidster site, are direct infringers.
Gunter, and amici Facebook and Google, urge the Seventh Circuit to adopt the Ninth Circuit’s “server test.” As noted above, the Ninth Circuit interpreted the Copyright Act to limit liability for public display of a copyrighted work to only those online users who actually copy the work onto their own server.
Gunter is facing an uphill battle here. As the lower court noted, the Ninth Circuit’s decision isn’t binding on the Seventh. And while the “server test” has been received favorably by some academics and service providers, it has apparently not been endorsed by any other court outside the Circuit. And, the “server test” is not found in the text of the Copyright Act or suggested by the legislative history.
There’s another problem for Gunter. Perfect 10 dealt solely with the public display right in copyright, while here the court is dealing with both the right to publicly display and publicly perform a work. The Ninth Circuit’s adoption of the “server test” was premised on the language of the Copyright Act’s definition for “display”:
To “display” a work means 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.
The court seized on the definition’s inclusion of the word “copy” to support its conclusion. However, the Act’s definition of “performance” doesn’t refer to copies:
To perform or display a work “publicly” means—
(1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or
2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.
On a side note, this definition makes sense. When a theater performs a dramatic play, or a band performs a musical composition, it doesn’t generally have a “copy” of the work, but such a performance is still within the exclusive rights of the copyright owner.
But more to the point, even if the Ninth Circuit’s “server test” were adopted by the Seventh Circuit, it doesn’t follow, from the language of the definitions, that it should be applicable to the public performance right.
It’s my opinion that embedding a video can be considered a public performance (I’ve touched on this issue before in relation to last summer’s Commercial Felony Streaming Act). In fact, I was somewhat surprised in researching to discover that the issue doesn’t seem to have come in front of a court until now. But others have concluded the same — here’s an article from 2007 quoting This Week in Law’s Denise Howell saying as much.
And, despite some of the hyperbole2 that has resulted from Flava Work’s position on embedded links, I don’t believe a decision affirming the lower court would result in much of a change for occasional users of embedded links — like, say, bloggers or forum operators. These users have always had the benefit of the DMCA safe harbors for any unintentional infringement that might stem from embedding a video, as well as the fair use defense in appropriate circumstances.
Is Linking ever Infringement?
Part of the negative response to this case seems to stem from an idea that linking can never give rise to liability for infringement — this is, in fact, one of the arguments Google and Facebook make in their joint amicus brief.3 But such a bright line rule has never existed.
Congress certainly hasn’t held this view. In the legislative history for the DMCA, you can find evidence that Congress believed linking can, in some cases, be infringing. The House Commerce Committee explained that the “red flag” knowledge standard in the bill was intended “to exclude from the safe harbor sophisticated ‘‘pirate’’ directories—which refer Internet users to other selected Internet sites where pirate software, books, movies, and music can be downloaded or transmitted.” And the safe harbor for information location services itself (17 USC § 512(d)) expressly shields service providers against liability “for infringement of copyright by reason of the provider referring or linking users to an online location containing infringing material or infringing activity, by using information location tools, including a directory, index, reference, pointer, or hypertext link.”
And, despite its legal arguments, Google itself recognizes that linking can infringe copyright. In its AdWords copyright policy, Google states that “Software or sites that enable streaming, copying, or downloading of movies, music, television programs, games, or software” are not allowed — and such sites include “Link aggregation sites primarily aimed at enabling the download or streaming of music, movies, or other media.”
- Note that the District Court followed the traditional standard for copyright infringement injunctions, where a likelihood of success on the merits creates a presumption in favor of an injunction. This is in contrast to the Second and Ninth Circuits, which extended the Supreme Court’s holding in eBay v. MercExchange that no such presumption exists for patent injunctions to copyright infringement cases. Gunter has appealed this point along with the others discussed here, and while it is an interesting and important issue, it is beyond the scope of today’s article. [↩]
- According to the site linked above: “If the MPAA is successful and the decision is upheld, this could have far reaching, and dire, consequences for Internet users of all stripes; the ruling would seem to include even the idea of linking back to the host-site instead of embedding, essentially rendering a critical part of online culture illegal. It would, much like ACTA, accomplish a large part of what SOPA and PIPA sought to do without actually requiring the pesky consent of the governed that otherwise is at the heart of American law.” [↩]
- The court and parties to this case use the term “linking” to refer both to hyperlinking — where a web site’s text can be clicked to go to another web site — and embedded linking — where an image or video on another server is displayed as though it is part of a web site. Under the hood, both are acheived in much the same way, though each offers a different type of experience to the user. [↩]