The Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision in Garcia v. Google was hugely popular when it came out several weeks ago, though talk about it has quickly died down. Despite that, part of the court’s discussion is troubling and worth note.
To recount the facts quickly, actress Cindy Lee Garcia performed a cameo in what she thought was an “action-adventure thriller set in ancient Arabia.” The film ended up being an offensive anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. Garcia appeared for five seconds with a dubbed-over voice asking, “Is your Mohammed a child molester?” A 14 minute version of the film was uploaded to YouTube, causing widespread outrage in the Middle East. A fatwa was issued by an Egyptian cleric against all participants in the film, and Garcia received “multiple death threats” because of her appearance.
Garcia took legal action through a number of avenues. On November 30, 2012, a federal district court denied a preliminary injunction based on a copyright claim. A Ninth Circuit panel reversed this decision in 2014 and granted the injunction, causing widespread outrage on the internet. On May 18th, however, an en banc court dissolved the panel’s injunction and affirmed the district court’s decision.
The En Banc Decision
When deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction, a court considers four factors: (1) the likelihood a plaintiff will succeed on the merits of her claim, (2) the likelihood a plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction, (3) the balance of hardships between the two parties, and (4) the public interest.
The Ninth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the injunction for two reasons. First, it concluded that Garcia was unlikely to succeed on the merits, saying “neither the Copyright Act nor the Copyright Office’s interpretation supports Garcia’s claim.” And second, it held that “Garcia failed to muster a clear showing of irreparable harm.” Because of these two conclusions, the court found it unnecessary to consider the final two factors.
I think the Ninth Circuit reached the correct result on the merits in holding that Garcia did not have an independent copyrightable interest in her five second performance—and there are doctrines the court didn’t look at, such as the de minimis doctrine, that may have separately provided grounds for such a result. However, its discussion regarding irreparable harm does not rest on as solid legal grounds. It’s easy to gloss over the discussion of irreparable harm if one is thinking about it in terms of Garcia’s weak claim. But when one realizes it applies across the board to all copyright owners, then the concern becomes apparent.
The Ninth Circuit starts its discussion of irreparable harm by asserting that “there is a mismatch between [Garcia’s] substantive copyright claim and the dangers she hopes to remedy through an injunction.” That is, says the court, because Garcia is seeking an injunction under copyright law, her “harm must stem from copyright—namely, harm to her legal interests as an author.” The Ninth Circuit cites to the Second Circuit’s remark in Salinger v. Colting that “The relevant harm is the harm that … occurs to the parties’ legal interests” in support.
It then turns immediately to the Constitution, asserting that the “purpose of copyright underscores the disjunction Garcia’s case presents.” The Ninth Circuit finds copyright’s purpose is explicitly commercial and not to “protect secrecy.”
Having defined copyright’s purpose in such a way, the court then describes the harms Garcia is seeking to prevent as “damage to her reputation, unfair[,] forced promotion of a hateful Film, and death.” However, it says, these “harms are untethered from—and incompatible with—copyright and copyright’s function as the engine of expression.”
For example, the court finds “privacy is not a function of the copyright law” because the goal of copyright is “to encourage public access to the creative work of the author.” Similarly, emotional distress damages are unavailable under the Copyright Act “because such damages are unrelated to the value and marketability of their works.”
Finally, the court finds no refuge for Garcia in the “right to be forgotten” or “moral rights”, since it says neither are recognized in the United States. It ultimately concludes that “the gravamen of Garcia’s harm is untethered from her commercial interests as a performer, and instead focuses on the personal pain caused by her association with the film.”
The Legal Interests of an Author
The court gets so much incorrect in so little time. Perhaps it’s the case that the weakness of Garcia’s substantive claim casts a shade over the court’s discussion of irreparable harm. The problem is that this discussion is just as applicable to a meritorious copyright claim.
So what went wrong?
First, the court improperly narrows the interest at stake from the legal interest to the “legal interest as an author” (and, later, narrows this further to the commercial interest as a performer). There is no statutory basis for this interpretation. Copyright protection subsists in a work. It accords a set of exclusive rights in that work. Infringement occurs simply through violation of any of these exclusive rights. Nowhere does the Copyright Act qualify infringement or an author’s exclusive rights as the Ninth Circuit has.
Ironically, the very case the court cites in support provides a counterargument. After the Second Circuit says in Salinger that the relevant harm is the one that “occurs to the parties’ legal interests”, as the Ninth Circuit quotes, it goes on to say that “The plaintiff’s interest is, principally, a property interest in the copyrighted material.” An invasion of a property interest causes a legal harm. This is contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s suggestion here that only certain types of invasions cause legal harms which may give rise to irreparable harm, particularly only harms to commercial interests.
The Supreme Court has provided support for this interpretation a number of times over the decades. In eBay v. MercExchange—which, though it involved an injunction for patent infringement, is just as applicable to copyright injunctions— the Court said that “a copyright holder possesses ‘the right to exclude others from using his property.’” It cautioned against adopting “expansive principles suggesting that injunctive relief could not issue in a broad swath of cases.” Of particular relevance here, it chastised the lower court’s conclusion that “’[a plaintiff’s] lack of commercial activity in practicing the patents’ would be sufficient to establish that the patent holder would not suffer irreparable harm if an injunction did not issue.”
As the Court said in Sony, “It is not the role of the courts to tell copyright holders the best way for them to exploit their copyrights.” But it was most direct in Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal when it said, “The owner of the copyright, if he pleases, may refrain from vending or licensing and content himself with simply exercising the right to exclude others from using his property.”
Elsewhere, the Ninth Circuit has said, “Even an author who had disavowed any intention to publish his work during his lifetime was entitled to protection of his copyright”.
The legal interest in a copyright, based on the statutory text and Supreme Court precedent, is an interest in exercising exclusively the rights enumerated in the Copyright Act. It is not, as the Ninth Circuit suggests, limited to a narrow subset of invasions, such as those that only affect a copyright owner’s commercial interests. That’s not to say that there is a presumption of irreparable harm once a likelihood of infringement has been established; the Supreme Court cautioned against such “categorical rules” in eBay. But as the Second Circuit pointed out when applying eBay, “This is not to say that most copyright plaintiffs who have shown a likelihood of success on the merits would not be irreparably harmed absent preliminary injunctive relief. As an empirical matter, that may well be the case, and the historical tendency to issue preliminary injunctions readily in copyright cases may reflect just that.”
Garcia, however, did not argue for a presumption of irreparable harm. She asserted a number of irreparable harms that were likely to result in the absence of an injunction. These harms included the risk of death, that most irreparable of injuries.
The Ninth Circuit marshals a number of points to support its conclusion that Garcia failed to show irreparable harm. First, the court’s discussion of the Constitutional purpose of copyright is both premature and misconceived.
Its emphasis on copyright’s role in encouraging “public access to the creative work of the author” and its ability to override a copyright owner’s legal interest leads to a logical contradiction. In a sense, the court is suggesting that copyright’s purpose is served by ignoring copyright. One must instead read the Copyright Clause conjunctively: Congress “promote[s] the progress of science and useful arts by securing… to authors… the exclusive right to their… writings.” Copyright’s purpose, in other words, is served when authors’ exclusive rights are secured.
The court then asserts that relief from the injuries Garcia seeks to avoid—”damage to her reputation, unfair[,] forced promotion of a hateful Film, and death”—”is not easily achieved under copyright law” because those harms are incompatible with “copyright’s function as the engine of free expression.”
This is an incomplete statement about the relationship between copyright and the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects not only the freedom to speak, but the freedom not to speak. Courts—including the Supreme Court—have recognized this principle applies equally in copyright cases. The Court in Harper & Row said that “freedom of thought and expression ‘includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.’” Copyright, it said, serves this “First Amendment value.” Indeed, the Second Circuit observed in Salinger, which the Ninth Circuit quotes in its discussion, that “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms,” and hence infringement of the right not to speak, “for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” It would certainly be the case, then, that being threatened with death for words that one did not speak but that have been attributed to her would constitute irreparable injury.
The court is correct when it says that “authors cannot seek emotional distress damages under the Copyright Act.” But the case it cites is speaking about actual damages, not injunctive relief, so that statement is irrelevant here.
The court’s dismissal of a copyright owner’s privacy interests is similarly misguided. Copyright and privacy have long shared common ground. In 1849, a British court said, “That there is property in the ideas which pass in a man’s mind is consistent with all the authorities in English law. Incidental to that right is the right of deciding when and how they shall first be made known to the public. Privacy is a part, and an essential part, of this species of property.” Warren and Brandeis’ seminal article, The Right to Privacy, also observe this kinship. There, the legal giants say, “[T]he legal doctrines relating to infractions of what is ordinarily termed the common-law right to intellectual and artistic property are, it is believed, but instances and applications of a general right to privacy.”
Right Results, Wrong Approach
To reiterate, establishing irreparable harm here does not necessarily mean Garcia should get an injunction. As noted above, the weak merits of the copyright claim weighs against an injunction. And though the Ninth Circuit did not look at the third factor, the balance of hardships or equities, that likely weighs against injunctive relief as well, given Google’s attenuated participation in the infringement.
So it is all the more unfortunate that the court expounded erroneously on irreparable harm. At its heart, copyright provides the author with the exclusive right to decide how, when, and where their expression is disseminated to the public (subject, of course, to exceptions and limitations like fair use). Any given author will have a range of equally valid interests motivating those decisions, both economic and non-economic. Courts should exercise caution in second guessing those motivations as the Ninth Circuit did here in its discussion on irreparable harm.