On Monday, I looked at what’s in store for copyright in the policy world in the upcoming year; today, I want to take a look at what we might see in the courts. Although it is impossible to predict what will come out of the courts in 2015, there are a number of ongoing lawsuits and appeals that may lead to further developments over the next twelve months. The following discussion is nowhere near comprehensive and highly idiosyncratic, reflecting my personal interests.
All is quiet on the copyright front at the Supreme Court as we enter 2015. The Court does not currently have any cases featuring copyright issues scheduled on its docket. But pending is a cert petition filed this past autumn by Google in an infringement suit brought against the company by Oracle. In May, the Federal Circuit held that software code copied by Google from Oracle’s Java platform was copyrightable. Google is asking the Court to reconsider that decision, arguing that the literal code, along with the “structure, sequence, and organization”, that it copied is uncopyrightable as a system and method of operation. Oracle has responded that the Federal Circuit decision was correct, and Supreme Court review is not appropriate at this moment.
It will be interesting to see how courts continue to respond to last term’s decisions in Aereo and Petrella. Though there was some hand-wringing that the Court’s attempt to cabin its decision so as not to unduly impact cloud computing services would be unsuccessful, some lower courts have seemed a little too cautious in applying Aereo. For example, in September, a Southern District Court of New York judge declined to apply Aereo’s holding to the question of whether the defendant was engaged in an unauthorized public display “because its holding was explicitly limited to technologies substantially similar to the one before the Supreme Court.” Additionally, though the majority in Aereo never once mentioned the “volitional conduct” test, a non-statutory doctrine applied sporadically and inconsistently in a handful of lower courts, a judge from the Southern District Court of California held that this silence implied endorsement in a December decision.
Ironically, one of the early beneficiaries of the Aereo holding has been Dish Networks. The satellite television provider has exclusive rights to transmit a number of Arabic language television channels in the US. In 2012, it sued TV Net, a company that had begun offering many of those same channels to US subscribers via internet streaming. In October, a federal magistrate judge recommended Dish’s motion for default judgment and a permanent injunction (a recommendation that was subsequently adopted by the court). The magistrate cited to Aereo to support its conclusion that transmission of the channels by TV Net to its customers constituted public performances.
The irony here is that Dish Networks had just a few months earlier filed an amicus brief arguing the opposite—that providers of “user-controlled technologies” like Aereo (and, presumably, by extension, TV Net) should not be held liable for public performance.
In Petrella, the Court tackled the equitable doctrine of laches; however, one of the interesting potential outcomes of the case has nothing to do with its holding. The Petrella opinion included dicta that seemed to suggest the Court was endorsing one side of an issue that has split the Circuit Courts—whether a copyright registration is effective when the Copyright Office receives an application (the “application” approach) or when it completes the processing of the application (the “registration” approach). At one point, the Court in Petrella said, “Although registration is ‘permissive,’ both the certificate and the original work must be on file with the Copyright Office before a copyright owner can sue for infringement.” The reference to a requirement that the registration certificate be on file before an infringement suit can be brought suggests that the receipt of an application alone does not satisfy the law’s registration requirement. This issue does not come up too often, but it will be interesting to see if courts pay any heed to the Petrella language.
It’s worth noting that the Copyright Office firmly endorses the view that registration is only effective after processing is complete. It says in the Third Edition of its Compendium, the final version of which was published in December 2014,
The mere submission of an application to the U.S. Copyright Office does not amount to a registration. This is corroborated by the statute and the legislative history… [which], when read together, clearly evince Congress’s intention that the Register of Copyrights must either issue a certificate of registration or refuse an application for registration prior to filing a suit for copyright infringement. Not only would the filing of a lawsuit solely on the basis of submission of an application eliminate the mediating role that Congress intended the Office to fulfill, it also would nullify the Register of Copyrights’ statutory right to intervene in an infringement action in cases where the application for registration has been refused.
The Supreme Court continues to grant cert petitions through the end of its current term, which concludes in June, and it begins considering cases for its next term starting in October, so there’s always the possibility it will confront a copyright issue before the end of the year.
There are a number of appeals before the Circuit Courts dealing with interesting or noteworthy issues that may see rulings in 2015.
Digital sampling. In the Ninth Circuit, parties are still briefing VMG Salsoul v. Ciccone, involving alleged infringing sampling by Madonna for her hit Vogue. A California district court ruled in November 2013 that the portion copied—an individual “horn hit” from a 1976 composition called “Love Break”—lacked the required originality to be protected by copyright, and even if it did, the amount used was de minimis. Notably, the plaintiffs based their argument primarily on the Sixth Circuit’s 2005 Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films decision, which held that copyright’s traditional “substantial similarity” test for infringement does not apply to sound recordings, and any copying, no matter how minute, is infringing. While no court outside the Sixth Circuit has followed Bridgeport, and a few have even explicitly rejected it, this could be the first time a sister circuit court has squarely addressed the issue.
Mass digitization. The Second Circuit heard oral arguments in Authors Guild v. Google, concerning the Google Books commercial mass digitization project, less than a month ago, which could mean a decision some time in 2015 (though not necessarily). In 2013, the district court had held that Google’s scanning and display of excerpts en masse was fair use. However, the Authors Guild has noted, “Whatever the outcome of this case, a Supreme Court petition is in the cards.”
DMCA safe harbors. The parties in Capitol Records v. Vimeo are also still in the middle of briefing an appeal at the Second Circuit. Vimeo, like YouTube, allows users to upload and publicly share videos. The court there is being asked to consider the proper application of “red flag knowledge” and “willful blindness” under the DMCA as well as whether the DMCA safe harbor extends to pre-1972 sound recordings. Oral arguments there may be heard this year.
Finally, there are a number of lawsuits in both federal and state lower courts which may bring developments in 2015.
The Southern District Court of New York continues to keep an eye on the dispute between Fox News and media monitoring service TVEyes. This past September, the court held that TVEye’s creation of a database and provision of television clips to its paying subscribers is fair use, an unusually expansive interpretation of the privilege. Fox News has not appealed this decision at this point (though it may be appealed whenever a final judgment is entered), and the parties continue to litigate whether the “features that allow searches by date and time, and that allow clips to be archived, downloaded, emailed, and shared via social media” are also fair use.
Litigation against satellite radio provider Sirius XM for alleged unauthorized public performance of pre-1972 sound recordings continues in a number of courts across the country. As I wrote previously, federal courts in New York and California ruled that pre-1972 sound recording owners do have an exclusive right of public performance under state and common law in lawsuits filed by surviving Turtle’s members Flo & Eddie, while a state court in California held the same in a lawsuit brought by major record labels. A summary judgment motion on the same question remains pending in a Florida federal case brought by Flo & Eddie, as well as any appeals that may yet come out.
Relatedly, litigation against streaming service Grooveshark continues. In UMG Recordings v. Escape Media Group, a New York state court is ready to rule on a motion for summary judgment as to Grooveshark’s liability—including on a claim of direct infringement of public performance rights for pre-1972 sound recordings. This is particularly worth watching since a state court ruling on state law presumably carries more weight than a federal court ruling on state law (as has occurred in the Sirius litigation). Grooveshark is also facing claims of federal copyright infringement by Capitol Records in the Southern District Court of New York. Last May, the magistrate judge there recommended summary judgment in favor of Capitol Records, a recommendation Grooveshark subsequently opposed. A resolution remains pending.
Last August, Getty Images sued Microsoft over a “Bing image widget” released by Microsoft that allows third parties to embed on web sites images supplied by Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Getty alleges that this conduct amounts to copyright infringement by Microsoft. The Southern District Court of New York has so far denied a motion for preliminary injunction by Getty (Microsoft had disabled the widget by then) and a motion to dismiss by Microsoft; last month, Microsoft filed its answer and counterclaim.